Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Declining Membership in Genealogical Societies: Traditional Meetings Are Losing Appeal

Most genealogical societies have as their main purpose to share and educate members about genealogical research methodology. Secondarily, most also see themselves as social opportunities for those interested in researching their family histories. Beyond that, purposes and definitions become more individualized for each organization. Besides these two common purposes, most genealogical societies also have some common components to their organizational offerings that facilitate education and sharing. Traditionally, those common components include: face-to-face meetings, a topical journal, and data gathering and transcription projects.

Most genealogical societies were established when methods of connecting with others to educate and socialize were limited to face-to-face meetings and circulating information by way of a printed journal. So it stands to reason that a prescribed number of face-to-face meetings in a given location as well as a specified number of issues of the journal to be published each year would be mandated in traditional society bylaws. Let’s face it, genealogical societies are steeped in tradition. Tradition is a wonderful thing. But it can also place severe constraints on an organization.

Let’s take a look at a couple ways that keeping with tradition and having only traditional face-to-face meetings in a given location contributes to declining memberships in genealogical societies.

Our society here in the U.S. is more mobile now than ever before and that’s saying a lot given that we are a population born of immigrants. Just a couple generations ago, most people lived in the same neighborhood as their extended family and could find out a good deal of family history just by asking about it over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer with Sunday dinner.

Over time and with changing economic situations people have continued to move increasingly farther and farther from their family’s neighborhood… first to a suburb, then to where the next factory was hiring, then sometimes on to a retirement community in a warmer climate. Genealogical societies that continue to offer only traditional face-to-face meetings are missing out on an increasingly large segment of potential members who can’t take advantage of their meetings.

Let’s face it, novice researchers can get help from a book for “Dummies”. But anyone who gets their research off the ground is going to be looking for specific research tips either regarding their ancestors’ “old neighborhood” or from an ethnic based group that can help with tips for researching abroad. If a society sticks with traditional meetings only, they will continue to see their membership decline as their pool of potential members continues to relocate. Why pay dues if you can no longer go to meetings? Groups who are losing membership need to expand their member base not just live with a shrinking pool of potential members.

Another thing to consider is convenience or lack thereof. People like convenience and are willing to pay higher prices for things if they can get them conveniently. Convenience stores at gas stations are a perfect example of this. There are more convenient ways to get genealogical research advice than driving to a meeting that may or may not be near you, paying exorbitant prices for gasoline, listening to a lecture that may have nothing to do with the particulars of your own family research, paying for parking, and risking hazardous weather in some areas all to ask someone how to obtain information about a church parish in the area that was closed years ago.

Relatively speaking, the traditional meetings offered by genealogical societies aren’t convenient by today’s standards. The convenience of using computers and the internet are making traditional meetings offered at genealogical societies less appealing. They just aren’t the draw they once were for attracting new members. And without new members, genealogical societies will fade from existence. Their aging membership will expire in the natural course of things. Then what?

There’s a lot to be said for technology that allows you to ask for the advice you need right now, tonight, when you have a few minutes after the kids are in bed. Who wants to wait for the genealogical society meeting next month that they may or may not be able to attend due to a possible schedule conflict with their son’s (or grandson’s!) soccer game or a doctor’s appointment? Again, offering only traditional face-to-face meetings will limit the pool of potential members. They’re not especially convenient, and for those who don’t live nearby they are simply not feasible to attend. To broaden the potential membership pool, genealogical societies need offer alternative meeting venues.

Next we’ll take a look at the declining value of traditional society journals.