Society Spotlight: What is a history society’s biggest challenge?


In the 4th of my Society Spotlight themed blog posts, I look at the second of the questions I asked the three responding societies:

‘What is a society’s biggest challenge?’

This question is probably the one with the most variation between organisations, as each one identifies what it is that they are trying to overcome.

Some of the themes in these answers were straight forward and as you might expect, but all of them surprised me with a comment about the expectations of those who contact them – which has probably become more prevalent by genealogy and research TV shows.

Let’s delve into their answers…

Society of Genealogists logoAbbie Black, The Society of Genealogists

“The biggest challenge for a genealogical society is that people are not aware of the vast amount of services a society can provide for members.”

“At the Society of Genealogists, members are allowed free access to the Library, which houses the largest collection of parish register copies, as well as many other record types. The library is helpful for beginners as well as seasoned genealogists. Members also have free access to the online Society data which is always being updated. This includes digital images of original documents, as well as searchable indexes. Members also have access to free advice from volunteer genealogists, including a telephone advice service, one-on-one consultations, search services, lectures, and society published magazines. Members make provision for non-members to use the Society’s Library on payment of a daily search fee.”

Newman Name Society logoRobert Newman, The Newman Name Society

“Our biggest challenge is to get more people to join and be active members. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, people joined and we all worked together searching the county archives, transcribing records and sharing their finds.”

“Nowadays I find attitudes have changed, due I expect to so much information being on the internet, now some people find they have a spare couple of days, so they decide ‘to do’ their family tree, they contact me and expect our archive to have the details of their family sitting there waiting to be given to them.”

Cambridgeshire Family History Society logoLisa Newman, The Cambridgeshire Family History Society

“Our biggest challenges are retaining membership, engaging the next generation, getting the message across to go out and explore the archives and not sit behind a computer screen.”

“Thinking about what we can offer, that the Internet cannot – perhaps ancestral tourism, education, an opportunity to meet with like-minded people and learn from each other.”

Competing with the giants

What stands out here is that the smaller societies are feeling the weight of the larger online family history websites – the Ancestry, Geni, FindMyPast, GenesReunited types, and the ‘instant’ trees that they can seem to give their users (i’ll skirt round the quality of that elephant in the room for now).

Whilst the Society of Genealogists is a much larger society that is perhaps more able to digitize content, what’s next for the smaller societies? How can they attract new members and interests? How are they going to compete in the future?

In tomorrow’s Society Spotlight post, I explore their future, when they answer my question of ‘How does the Society plan to preserve its knowledge for the future?‘.

Do they have a plan to avoid a repeat of The Cross Family History Society’s death?, and the risk that Linda McCauley spoke of in my first post?

As ever, leave your comments below, or join in the discussion at LinkedIn.

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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2 Responses to Society Spotlight: What is a history society’s biggest challenge?

  1. We’d offer the following:
    – age profile – the same people are providing the backbone of our society now as were doing so twenty and even thirty years ago. They cannot go on forever. Younger members need to step up to the plate.
    – the Internet – if you are a large company like the aforementioned Ancestry, you can afford to spend time and money maintaining your site. Small societies cannot (unless they are fortunate and have tame geeks to call on). Keeping up is a battle, more so if you are running a Facebook page, Twitter feed and a blog on top of a website.

    We have a very particular problem in that we are on a small island, substantially independent of the UK. We ran a member survey about 12 months ago and found we have effectively two member communities, the locals and everyone else, and we are having to develop two divergent strategies to attempt to engage them.

    • Hello CIFHS!

      Thanks for the comment – i found myself nodding throughout it.

      It’s great to hear that you’ve surveyed to try to identify your audience and tackle the issue now, rather than later. The larger well-known organisations do offer the more instant pop-up trees, and for some, that’s their genealogy research done and dusted in a few days. I’m not sure what it may take to engage younger people who are ‘a bit’ interested now in their family history, if that’s the lure of these big websites. It’s great that those sites can help preserve and distribute the information, but it means that societies have to evolve to find their niche and strength amongst them.

      I’m aiming to cover tech and geek-taming in the next post.

      Thanks again for commenting.
      Andrew

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