Tuesday 25 October 2016

(My) Future in Genealogy – Part 2

In my last post I commented on the general direction of genealogical research and people involved in those pursuits, as well as on the state of family history societies, as I have observed and participated with them.

I often wonder how many “professional genealogists” actually earn a decent living doing such work. Are they like realtors, where 10% do most of the business and are successfully engaged in supporting themselves and their families, while the rest work sparingly and just make “pin money.” It might be useful for the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) to do a “salary” survey of its members in order to find out what their careers are actually worth. True professional organizations, of working engineers for example, do this annually which serves as a guide to both employees and employers.

What might also be of interest is learning how many people are actively engaged in genealogical work full time as professionals and how many do it as a hobby, for personal interest only.

With regard to family history societies, my experience has shown me that they tend to work well on a local basis and mainly as social groups. People can gather regularly to hear a speaker or discuss aspects of research among themselves or just use their involvement as an excuse to get out of the house and talk with others who have similar interests. Occasionally, much less so now that they use to do, members can take on projects to compile and publish information about their local areas that will be of use to current and future generations of family historians.

These types of volunteer-run organizations do not appear to work well on a more regional basis. Regular meetings of the entire membership are not feasible. For individual members, the needs and desires of the local groups still trump those of the larger, or “Mother” society, as these people tend to identify first with their own branches. Individuals tend to spend most of their time with local branch activities leaving many of the parent group’s functions and activities to founder or fail because of a lack of available help (volunteers).

Generally the only people from across the large organization who get to know each other are those involved as Directors who can and do meet regularly. Just as often as not, though, they bring to these meetings their own local concerns rather than paying attention to the needs of the regional group.

Every one of these local and regional groups I have come across, been a member of or talked with others about have problems with sustainability. Few are growing; most are declining – as reported by many people in recent blogs and articles. Membership is aging and younger people (pre-pensioners for the most part) are engaged in different forms of research mainly relating to the Internet. Projects, especially those of a large scale, are going wanting for people to oversee or work on them. Conferences are more difficult to organize for the same reason. Financial worries are commonplace, with the ever-increase in costs of maintaining an office and printing of journals combined with fewer dues-paying members.

More messages from society Presidents contain an entreaty for members to step up to take on leadership roles – or even just participate on a limited basis. Often when volunteers do step up with new ideas and plans, though, they are met with resistance from those who harken to the past with comments like, “We have always done it this way.” As the President of the Alberta Genealogical Society recently put it, “Unfortunately, those who pick up the gauntlet and agree to lead are quickly damned by those who are resistant to change and feel their comfort threatened, and are just as quickly cursed by those who feel their suggestions for the future are not being heeded.” 

At this point I cannot see myself volunteering in a group again. The workload for a journal Editor can be daunting, but without full acceptance and support of membership and an organization’s leaders it can quickly become a most frustrating experience. Perhaps due to the time commitment of individuals and costs of production, these types of publications, that contain serious articles on methodology and valuable case studies, may not have a future. I know I spent hundreds of hours getting each issue prepared for publication, time taken away from my own research and personal activities.

Many commercially-produced and professionally done magazines, as well as journals of large organizations are taking up quality submissions and being managed by committees of people who have the ability, time and competence to manage them. The local publications are mostly becoming just newsletters that highlight society activities but often do not contain much in the way of substantive material.

I have no interest in maintaining specific credentials in proficiency to stay as a member of the APG. I would be sorry to lose contacts in that organization and the valuable information contained in their journal, but I am not, at my age now, about to embark on a new career that entails living with stringent rules or spend a lot of money on courses or conventions just to keep a membership intact.

I will keep researching my own family, as a hobby and for personal interest. I will also keep writing about subjects and ideas I have come across that might entertain others or be of value to them. I won’t likely do any more consulting for fees but will continue to assist people with specific questions based on my knowledge and experience if the opportunities arise. I might even give the odd presentation about subjects I have direct expertise with.

I believe that family history societies will have to evolve in order to survive, whether their members like it or not. The successful groups today appear to be those that can focus on their own geographic areas and engage in projects close to home in terms of geography and data availability. Societies do play a role in expanding general knowledge but do so mostly through interpersonal communication at meetings and newsletters. Umbrella groups might profitably use funds from regional memberships to facilitate sourcing and providing speakers to attend branch meetings.

If a regionally-based society has value it will be to compile the projects taken on by their branches rather than to engage in wide-ranging studies or regular publishing of journals. Articles and case histories are readily available in publications of large, national and international groups as well as in commercial magazines. Having said that, though, independent, non-commercial journals that focus on large regions and serve many societies may be of value. The availability of such publications would save each local group from having to find volunteers to serve as Editors and not limit the exposure of important articles and stories that is a consequence of their inclusion only in local newsletters.

Perhaps I’ll get involved in another publication, although probably not one directly related to any particular organization. I’ll be giving more thought to this idea.

I will keep my Devon Family History Society membership for sure because a lot of my family research and volunteer activities as an Online Parish Clerk are associated with that region. I have done my part with local groups and don’t have the energy to go down those paths again, trying to convince people that change is good.

I do know one thing about this family history thing – there are still lots of people from the past I want to find out more about. I have a bit more time these days to do just that and I am finding out once more that it can be fun!

If you would not be forgotten
as soon as you are dead and rotten
either write things worthy of reading
or do things worthy of writing.
~ Benjamin Franklin, May 1738

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. He has also served as an editor of two such publications. Wayne provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.