There was a time in Kansas history when organizations such as the local Jack Rabbit Club, Anti Horse-Thief Association, Protection Guild, and Literary Club were absolute necessities in each community. Societies were essential for a wide variety of reasons, both social and practical. As times changed, the necessity for each organization began to fade until eventually the membership was diminished to the point where the society simply disbanded.
Sadly, the Genealogical Society today is facing some of these same issues primarily due to the rise of the Internet and the ability of people to simply “click a leaf” to download their family tree. The accuracy of this online information is not a great concern for most, and there is little interest in digging deeper into the genealogical truth. And secondary issue in the struggles many Societies today face is the disinterest of people in joining social groups, volunteering for long-term positions, and dealing with motions, minutes, and parliamentary procedure. Many Societies are responding to these cultural changes out of necessity by locking their vaults and disbanding their organization. Yet there is still a very important need for Genealogical Societies to coordinate the collection of county records and in educating and encouraging future generations of family historians.
An alternative option would be to refocus our energies into becoming a project-based Society, as opposed to a volunteer-based one. The volunteer-based society has strict bylaws that requires volunteer officers to adhere to them. It requires office holders and committees and regular meetings. They need correspondence secretaries and membership dues and quarterly newsletters. A project-oriented society may still have officers or project coordinators, but it does not place a heavy burden upon anyone. Projects can be divided into as small a unit as desired, and allows interested people to take any piece of a project that interests them.
You will have people in the county who are interested in military history, who may or may not be committed to family genealogy, and they can be asked to transcribe or index biographies, unit histories, veteran headstones, VFW membership registers, etc. They can choose the Civil War, WWII, or the Vietnam War, depending upon their interests. All that is needed is someone interested in military genealogy who will compile this information for uploading to the Society website; unless you have a website where the contributor can upload it themselves. Of course, some people just want to transcribe; others would prefer to coordinate or upload information; still others aren’t interested in either. Any project can be broken down into areas of interest. Newspaper transcriptions can be of obituaries (county-wide, community or cemetery-wide, decade of death, or even month at a time). They could instead be of marriages and weddings. Anniversaries, police court, local sports news, railroad news, oilfield news, farm reports, etc., all can be parceled out based upon individual interests and the time they are willing to spend. Nursing home residents may enjoy typing biographies or stories from a particular period of time, or perhaps some folks would be willing to interview other residents and then type up their life stories. Some folks enjoy photographing headstones, provided the project is of a reasonable size, but they may not be interested in indexing them, uploading them, or connecting family members together. The key is to match people’s interests with a particular project that benefits future family researchers and In some cases, designing small projects and then finding people who are willing to take it on.
The effect of this is that the general “we need volunteers” call is removed, and officers don’t have unending tasks and countless meetings; rather, they can pursue the projects that interest them most. The pressure of deadlines is removed. Newsletters can go out when there is someone interested in putting something together, or even simple and occasional articles on a blog or Facebook page, but the burden of multi-page quarterly production is gone. The Society simply operates with the number of volunteers available, each one doing what they are able as they are able and allowing the rest to go undone.
Membership dues can be done away with, as there are no significant expenses to cover. Sign up people for free, those who are interested in genealogy or family history in your county, and that’s a simple-enough project for someone. Keep in touch with this general membership by being the county source for information on all genealogy, family history, or other historical presentations, workshops, resources, and events in your area. Find an encourager who will be in charge of sending thank-you notes, make project completion award certificates, publicize the number of articles transcribed and other volunteer efforts (people will volunteer the more they feel important and valued). Best of all, the organization will grow and change as the membership changes and you’ll be working together with the changing culture and technologies, rather than fight against them. Meetings and education can be done through webinars or YouTube videos, updates cheered via email, queries can be posted online, and any specific financial needs can be met as they arise simply by making the need known to the ever-widening circle of Society friends.
The Genealogical Society as it has been known is finally hearing its death-toll in the distance. For smaller societies, a lack of dues-paying, meeting attenders and position-holders is driving this change, as more people are content to click leaves while sitting on their couch in the quietness and isolation of their own home. Your Society can be one of these online resources for them to find, and contribute to, but the Society will need to transform itself in order to continue as a viable and meaningful part of today’s culture. In doing so, we will continue to influence future generations of family researchers, instead of giving up and closing the doors altogether. Larger societies retain the benefit of a larger audience and because of this have the resources to continue more readily available to them; even so, the society must transform itself to keep pace with the quickly-changing genealogical community and the technologies it embraces.