Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Declining Membership in Genealogical Societies: Traditional Journals vs Electronic Journaling

Most genealogical societies have a topical journal that they publish at regular intervals. Typically these journals have articles submitted by members; perhaps a success story or two, a recent discovery made, research tips and how-to articles, a historical piece pertaining to a person, event, or location of interest to members, and possibly some sort of data list of surnames.

Smaller groups with lower budgets tend to put out smaller journals, less frequently, in black and white only. Larger groups can afford larger or more editions, some even with beautiful 4-color process printing that look like commercial magazines. But large or small, a great deal of work goes into the publications. And once they are published they are often forgotten about.

The problem with this method of sharing information is one of indexing. Journal indexing is usually limited to a Table of Contents and possibly a list of surnames. It's virtually impossible to include all the key words for an article in its title. And surnames aren't always what people are looking for either. So as your genealogy research progresses and you find more events or places you want information on, you're stuck with going through one edition after another (as many as you can get your hands on), page by page, to see if any of the articles mention the village in the Ukraine that your great uncle Szymon was from. Or maybe you just found out the name of the cigar factory Grandma Ludwika worked in and now you are looking for any mention of it in the society's journals. What a lot of work! Who has got that kind of time and access to potentially many years of a society's journals? Sure they may be in beautiful color or contain lots of information, but if you can't easily put your hands on the information you're looking for they aren't a very accessible resource. They aren't a convenient resource either. Just think how much more useful that information would be in a searchable electronic format!

The second major drawback to offering only traditional journals is the time factor involved. Typically journal editions are only published every few months, maybe 3 or 4 times a year. In this day and age that is just plain archaic.

There are enough good solid articles on research tips, success stories, and how-to-do-genealogy-research available every day of the week on Blogs (a Blog is an online journal) alone to equal any genealogical society's monthly or quarterly journal and then some. For free. At your convenience. We're talking fresh new content and fresh perspectives on tried and true methods. And you can search them out by topic too so you don't have to be disappointed that this month's issue has nothing of interest to you. Add to that traditional web sites who publish updates on a weekly or monthly basis and you begin to see why people aren't holding their breath waiting for the next edition of the society's journal.

Another huge advantage to publishing electronically, especially in a blog format, is the option for interactivity. Bloggers almost always have a link at the end of every post where readers can make comments or ask questions. And Bloggers love to get your feedback! It's very gratifying to know that someone is reading and thinking about that article that you put days, weeks, or even months of work into. And readers can ask for more details or information about sources. Or they can contribute more information on the same topic for others to enjoy. You just can't get there with a traditionally printed journal. And because Blogging just requires typing and doesn't bother with page layout details, editing by a staff of people, or waiting on printing time, it gets "published" instantly. That frees up a lot of members' volunteer time for other things!

So how does traditional publishing of society journals contribute to a declining membership? Journals have been one of the main reasons people have joined genealogical societies, but they aren't much of a commodity anymore. The content isn't easily accessible to those who don't have physical copies. The information isn't well indexed and can take an enormous amount of time to locate for those who do. Traditional publishing isn't timely and it takes a lot of resources (volunteer time) for the amount of output relative to electronic forms of publishing. And last but not least, it doesn't allow for interactivity (unless you want to include "Letters to the Editor" written snail mail and published months after the original article).

People won't pay for something they are already getting for free. So if they can't attend face-to-face meetings (as discussed in the previous post) and the traditional journals are less attractive than what's already available conveniently, timely, and for free... they would want to join a genealogical society why?

...Maybe because they want to be a part of a group project to find and extract information to benefit others. We'll look at that next.