Society Spotlight: How can we help history societies focus on the future?


I’m a supporter of history societies. I think they’re great resources, and that they play a very important role in preserving and sharing information to communities. However, these treasure troves of information face a real risk without a healthy long-term plan of survival.

Whilst talking with genealogist Linda McCauley a few weeks ago, she recalled a story of a  society in the US that has nearly been wiped out after the recent death of its treasurer. The treasurer had pretty much run the society single-handedly and was the only person who knew where the membership list was kept. Now, that society faces a bleak future unless the list is found by the grieving family when their home is cleared. If not, it brings an end to the individual’s dedicated hard work for which they surely must have hoped would have a long-lasting legacy.

Genealogist Linda McCauley

Genealogist Linda McCauley.

“It’s so easy today for a society to back-up their critical information. All it takes is a few files stored online and multiple officers with the ID and password to access them” – Linda McCauley.

This story struck a chord with me and got me thinking – how can we help history societies survive?

Hold on, why should we help history societies?

Societies are often run by volunteers, and with little or no funding behind them. This means that they rely on the donations from members, events, making a profit on their publications, and membership subscriptions. It also means that they don’t necessarily have the funding to digitise their archive, or to put it securely online for people to browse (or even just to digitally preserve, and/or put a searchable index online).

The kind of records that societies hold varies considerably, but often include items that are otherwise ignored by the larger organisations that have the monopoly on digitizing records and making available online – items include items such as personal collections from local people, self-published family stories, one-off types of items, personal photograph collections, and many other types. These records are likely to be ‘small fry’ for the likes of Ancestry, FindMyPast, Genes Reunited etc, as they won’t have such a wide appeal, and therefore won’t be the money-spinner worth investing in. One society I know, holds their parish gravedigger’s note book, which alongside the parish register, provides a useful corroborative record of burials.

How do history societies want to be helped?

The best way to know the answer to this is to ask them. So I contacted five different UK-based societies to see how they would answer three questions.  Three have replied since I contacted them back on 29th June 2013. The respondent three were:

  • The Society of Genealogists – a large genealogy society which holds the largest collection of parish records and is based in London. It is widely known and visible through the events and training courses that it organises, and appearances on television.
  • The Cambridgeshire Family History Society – a county-wide family and local history society in England, with a wide range of publications, international members, and support courses.
  • The Newman Name Society – a member of the Guild Of One-Name Studies (GOONS), and the first family history society I ever joined, almost 20 years ago.

I asked each of them the same three questions, and for the next five days i’ll be sharing their answers to each question in turn, and looking at ways that you can help your local society, or the society local to your ancestors. The questions were:

  1. What is the society’s biggest need?
  2. What is the society’s biggest challenge?
  3. How does the society plan to preserve its knowledge for the future?

I hope that you will find this series of posts interesting, and perhaps find it inspiring enough to contact your local society and offer them even just a few hours of your time and/or expertise, or at least become a member to help fund them.

If you’re a member of a society already, or already helping a society in some capacity, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below (and feel free to post a link to their website!). Let’s promote them!

Come back tomorrow when I’ll be talking about the death of a family history society.

About Andrew Martin

+Andrew Martin is owner and lead writer for History Repeating and Family Tree UK. Genealogist, historian, writer, photographer and would-be archaeologist. He'd love a time machine, but worries that it might take all the fun out of it.
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