Thursday, August 17, 2006

Declining Membership in Genealogical Societies: More Options for Making Your Society More Accessible

There are a lot of internet technologies available for genealogical societies to take advantage of. In the previous post, we looked at blogs, forums, and online chats. This time around we’ll look at podcasts, Skypecasts, and wikis. These are newer technologies though they certainly aren’t brand new. They’ve been around for a few years but are just catching on and being adapted for genealogy purposes.

Podcasting is catching on really fast, just ask anyone under the age of 30 ;-) Essentially, a podcast is an audio or video “program” digitally recorded for playback on an iPod or any computer. Yes, that’s right. You can play podcasts on any computer. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t require an iPod to play them. I liken podcasts to listening to the old time radio programs. The difference is they aren’t broadcast over the air waves; you download them to your computer and play them there. There are a couple of genealogy-topic podcasts being produced on a regular basis now. You can check them out at The Genealogy Tech Podcast and The Genealogy Guys Podcast web sites. Ken Aitken recently posted about a major archive that is now using podcasts in a very clever way. Check it out and think about the possibilities for genealogical societies... lectures available for download from society web sites.

Making a podcast takes a little time and practice. But like anything else, it gets easier with practice. You need some audio editing software, like Audacity, and an explanation of how to create and distribute your podcast. You can get that at Podcasts would be an excellent way to bring genealogy meetings to those who physically can’t attend. They are a one-way lecture format ideally suited to record meetings and seminars. This is the next best way to make your genealogical society more accessible to the members. And once again, it gives them something they can’t get elsewhere (unless they can attend the meeting or seminar in person).

And now on to Skypecasts. Skypecasts, are for all intents and purposes, the same as online chats except that they utilize VoIP (voice over internet protocol) technology. Which means they are audio instead of type chatting. Think of it as a group phone call or a conference call for, oh, a 100 people or so. To be fair, Skype is only one company that offers this technology. Ken Aitken wrote a blog post about a while back. More recently Dick Eastman has been experimenting with this technology and has had participants from all over the globe. It’s just like talking on the phone. Well, almost. It’s free to everyone everywhere but you do have to download the Skype software (which is very easy to do), and you do have to have a microphone (under $10 at RadioShack) or headset to hook up to your computer.

This technology is best suited to a lecture-then-Q&A format. It’s kind of chaotic when everyone has the floor at the same time (lots of distracting background noise too). But if a moderator/host/speaker were to give a talk on a specific topic for say 20-30 minutes or so and then take questions from listeners (who can “request the mike”), it would work out very well. The entire audio program can be recorded for playback too. This is another great example of how genealogical societies can reach out to their members and give them something they can’t get elsewhere… real time Q&A sessions for free, even from across the globe!

And last but not least, I’d like to touch on the subject of wikis. A wiki is a type of web site that allows users to view, edit, or contribute information. Probably the best known wiki is, a free-content encyclopedia. Many of the links in this post and the previous post were to pages.

Genealogical societies could set up and use a wiki for their own field of specialization. If, for instance, your society is ethnically based, say for instance Polish genealogy. You could set up a wiki for Polish genealogy. You could then offer to let members (or the public) contribute information relevant to Polish genealogy… information on historical events, cities, villages, churches, and famous people in Poland. It would become a resource site not just for links to other sites (like Cyndi’s List) but for actual content. Once again the beauty here is that one person isn’t responsible for creating and uploading the content. It gets created and updated by anyone, or by designated members only. However you choose to do it. You create a repository for information related specifically to your organization's area of specialization. You become the "go-to" source for information on that topic without having to do all the work.

You can set up a wiki at a “wiki farm”. Check out a list of wiki farms at Not all of them are free but many of them are.

So now we’ve looked at three more venues for sharing information, increasing your society’s accessibility, and having more to offer your members and potential members. All of these venues allow you to control who can take advantage of them, so you can potentially offer them to members only. These then are more ways to attract new members and keep those already on your member rolls. For more information about these ideas you might want to check out a book called Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms which Ken Aitken blogged about. I haven't read the book myself but plan to.

Next we’ll look at newsletters, online communities and carnival blogs to see how they can be used to promote your genealogical society.