Society Spotlight: Volunteers, Skills, and Big Ideas

SOCIETY SPOTLIGHT: Today is the final part of the blogging theme of history societies, and I now explore ways that you can get involved, or ways for societies to overcome their hurdles.

In this, the final part of my Society Spotlight series of blog posts, I look back on the last five posts, and try to conclude and speculate on the future of our history societies based on their answers.

Photograph of maps, documents and a magnifying glass
Photo: Andrew Martin.

 

Q1. What is the Society’s biggest need?

For the first question, all three Societies were pretty much united in their answer. Their biggest need is people.

Societies rely on the time and expertise of those who can spare even just an hour a month, through to those who can offer a more regular amount of time. Not only does this volunteering offer skills to a society, but often those skills have value to the volunteer – particularly if they are looking to build their CV. Volunteers help societies to develop, and ultimately work more efficiently, and actively contribute to their evolution. Without those people who give their time for free, some societies may end up lost forever, along with all that they worked to achieve.

In the words of Lisa Newman from The Cambridgeshire Family History Society:

“Our biggest need is to encourage the next generation so that we maintain interest in the future in order to fund projects that preserve original material.”

Where do volunteers come from?

I’m pretty sure that the societies are being pro-active in seeking volunteers, but where might they be advertising? Word or mouth? Events? Their own publications? Perhaps even the media or online?

Volunteers can come from anywhere, and all will have their own interest area, so it can be hard to advertise generally when there are so many nuances that might be the hook to bring someone into helping.

Some volunteers might like to have a firm idea of what they might be doing before they offer themselves up. A few years back, I was working for a charity, and needed about 2-3 days per week help when my workload escalated. I worked alone and we didn’t have the skills in-house, so I wrote a ‘job’ description but for a volunteer, that clearly outlined the type of work they’d be doing and roughly how much time per week this amounted to (although I was clear that it could be flexible). We advertised it through the local business network community and a few local job (online and offline) boards. Within a couple of weeks, and after holding an informal ‘interview’ to work out whether there was a match of interests, the volunteer began working alongside me – they were perfect for the role. She eventually went on to take over my paid role after i left.

Some kind of structure at the outset, helps to give a volunteer a sense of purpose and a goal. If they’re just to do bits and bobs here and there, it might not be so appealing (although that approach might work for some too), as they won’t be able to see where or how their contribution fits in to the overall goals and aims of the society. By giving a volunteer a sense of purpose and responsibility, it can surely only help to keep them happy and interested.

For a bigger and fuller-time society, it might be an option to offer an internship – paying expenses in return for their time (during which they’ll pick up skills), but there’s probably a few legal hoops to jump through with that one, so worth checking before you leap into that.

Q2. What is the Society’s biggest challenge?

It would seem that awareness is the biggest challenge, again for all three societies, and particularly when pitching alongside the behemoths of online genealogy – Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, FindMyPast etc.

Finding that niche

Societies hold a vast amount of information around their focussed locale, occupation, surname etc, and these often take the form of personal stories and amateur family histories, family trees, film and audio material that’s been donated to them, physical objects relating to their focus, and a wealth of other gems that hold an important but niche connection to the society’s focus.

Such niche gems are unlikely to be as desirable for the larger websites – who are trying to cater for a wide online audience, and make money from subscriptions by digitising desirable historic ephemera.

WW2 WLA
The stories from people such as this member of the Women’s Land Army may provide societies with their niche. Photo: JamesGardinerCollection via CreativeCommons.

The written history of say, Albert the coal delivery man, or Judith the land girl, might be an incredibly useful historical record of culture, occupation, locale, but of little interest to a wider audience.

My own personal opinion here, is that societies need to focus on finding their niche – something that’s popular and that they can easily handle/facilitate. Maybe it’s events and lectures, or maybe it’s the wealth of these unique records/objects, that are not found elsewhere, and using every PR opportunity to shout about themselves and what they do, in a bid to gain new members and raise awareness of the society.

In the words of Abbie Black from 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.”

Looking up census returns, family tree research services, and parish records, have all been wonderfully done in the past, but with these large online genealogy sites taking these activities to just a couple of clicks away, I feel that these unique items are the niche, and a society needs to capitalise on them now, and make them accessible and relevant to their niche audience.

Check out this innovative and brilliant example of a one-family-centric reunion event – that was packed with information and was so personal to a smaller group of people. Perhaps a more personal touch to events might help boost societies too?

Q3. How does the Society plan to preserve its knowledge for the future?

This question gave the most mixed answers.

Thankfully, all three society representatives showed that their societies have a plan to preserve their work so that our history can continue to exist in the future. Whether this is by their own pro-active programme of evolution (like the Society of Genealogists or Cambridgeshire Family History Society), or more eventual, by depositing its records and data with another larger society (the Newman Name Society).

defunct formats
Updating technologies will be one way of preserving history for the future. Photo: Andrew Martin.

In yesterday’s posting the Channel Islands Family History Society commented that utilising technology will be one way to keep a society up to speed with the bigger more well-known genealogy organisations/services.

How can we help history societies focus on the future?

Thinking back to the society that Linda McCauley talked of, it may have been that the society had grown out of a labour of love, or maybe it was just too hard to find anyone else who was genuinely interested in (or able to) help.

Geek Taming

If your society is pondering what to do with it’s data or has a technical conundrum, then there are ways to get this moving. It might cost a little, but think of it as an investment into your data or website that would bring it forward and help you and your society be more visible, and ultimately gain members, and funds.

One society that I know (I won’t reveal their name), has a large database of their member’s trees – packed with information. But the database was custom written in what is now old tech called MS DOS which was discontinued in 2000, and the person who wrote the database is sadly no longer alive. The legacy of this is, whilst the data is there and perfectly useable – it relies on an older PC to run it, and it is currently locked in time – without the skills available to unpick it, and export the data into something more modern. It also means that events rely on that old PC being transported to venues in order to delve into their database.

If you’re stuck for the free help of volunteers, a solution might come in the form of outsourcing that through sites like Elance.com and Freelancer.co.uk, where you can identify the job you need undertaking, and then allow people to bid for the work. You can then choose the best deal, and they’ll do the work for you. Each freelancer has a rating – much like sellers on eBay – so you can see which bidder is the most reliable and best for your budget and job.

Another solution, might be to pitch your tech problem (if it’s like the example I gave above) to your local college, to give them a real project to work on. This will give valuable experience to the students, a great PR opportunity for the college, and may well solve the issue.

Locally to me, there’s many active MeetUp groups, one of which where individuals can pitch to a wide range of other experts including developers, copywriters, and designers, in a bid to get them interested in your project.

If you’re stuck for budget for your big development, crowdsourcing might be the answer. It has been highly successful – funding films, music albums, books, apps and all kinds of things through sites like Kickstarter or IndieGogo – where members of the international public can give money to projects they like, often in return for some small incentive (perhaps a free family tree search by one of your members?)

Society Spotlight – and that’s a wrap!

Hopefully some of these ideas will give you inspiration to either join a society, or if you are a society, to find the help you need to keep preserving our heritage for generations to come.

Thank you for the feedback this week, and for all the readers, and sharers of the blog posts. I hope that you have enjoyed my Society Spotlight theme, and perhaps have now become inspired to offer some of your time and/or expertise to a history society local to you, or at the very least, become a member.

Of course, I’d like to say a big thank you to Else Churchill and Abbie Black of The Society of Genealogists, Robert Newman of The Newman Name Society, Muriel Halliday and Lisa Newman of The Cambridgeshire Family History Society, and Linda McCauley. Without their willingness and openness, this series of posts would not have been possible. I hope that my week of blog posts will, in some way, help to bring new opportunities to our beloved history societies.

Andrew

Society Spotlight: How does the Society plan to preserve its knowledge for the future?

Society Spotlight: In today’s post, the history societies take a look at if and/or how they are planning the legacy of their work for future generations.

Today sees the fifth in my series of Society Spotlight posts, and the final question that I posed to the three history societies.

It tackles the big question, that will help ensure that a Society and its members leave a lasting legacy to their community or the history that they work so hard to preserve, avoiding the fate seen by the Cross Family History Society:

‘How does a society plan to preserve its knowledge for the future?’

As all family historians, professional genealogists, and organisations know, if you’re going to invest your time in researching and creating records or filling databases with data, then you need to know that what you’re spending your hours doing, will actually survive into tomorrow, next year, and further beyond.

Where once keeping meticulous paper copies sounded like a good idea, it moved on to formats like microfiche, film, cd-roms, GEDCOM, and more recently that mystical place called ‘The Cloud’, but all of them have pros and cons, so what plans do the Societies have to preserve their work and leave a legacy?

Here’s their answers…

Society of Genealogists logoAbbie Black, The Society of Genealogists

“Many societies, including the Society of Genealogists, are always receiving new materials that are in the process of being preserved. Digitization of original documents makes genealogical materials easily accessible to people who simply can’t come to the Society. Digitization and preservation are also important for the future of a society in the case of a natural disaster. Coincidentally, Dick Eastman’s blog Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter recently published an article on 2 July 2013 concerning a society affected by the Southern Alberta flooding disaster.”

“Understanding the concerns of natural disaster, the society had all of their society’s family history backed up in a cloud storage system, which protected their information from disaster. Societies are constantly storing, backing up, and protecting their data that will preserve information for the future through technology.”

“By reaching out to a new generation of genealogists, societies will be able to preserve their future. Younger people have interest in their own genealogy, and societies are reaching out to those individuals through lectures and social networking to help preserve and continue the work that the society holds most valuable.”

Newman Name Society logo

Robert Newman, The Newman Name Society

“Our archive will probably be placed in the Guild Of One-Name Studies (GOONS) archive.”

Cambridgeshire Family History Society logo

Lisa Newman, The Cambridgeshire Family History Society

“Other than continuing to adapt to new technologies and platforms and by encouraging interest in the Society so that we can engage new members to join the Committee to keep doing the good work that has gone before.”

Do you have a plan?

What are your own plans for preserving your research for a future generation? Do you have a plan? Or are you now beginning to wonder what might become of it? Leave me a comment below, or over at the Geneabloggers LinkedIn group.

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

Society Spotlight: In today’s post, the history societies identify their 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.

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

Three history and genealogy societies reveal what they feel that their society, and societies like them, see as their biggest need.

In today’s Society Spotlight themed blog post, I reveal the answers to the first question that I asked the societies:

What is the society’s biggest need?

Before approaching the societies, I had a few ideas as to what the themes of this answer might be – people, time, items/records. However, I was surprised that the other of my guesses – a financial theme – doesn’t get mentioned here.

Here’s what the society representatives had to say:

Society of Genealogists logoAbbie Black, The Society of Genealogists (SoG)

“A society’s biggest need is dedicated individuals who want the work of a society to succeed. Volunteers make up most of the workforce of societies, and they do excellent work in continuing the goals of preserving the past. Volunteers digitize documents, create indexes, and help members of the society do effective research.”

“In larger Societies like the Society of Genealogists paid professional staff are also important to a society’s function; they provide professional expertise and competencies, not only in subject specialisms as genealogists or librarians but in management accountability, finance and human resources. Genealogical Societies with professional staff are more common in the USA but the SoG is unique in the UK.”

Robert Newman, The Newman Name Society

Newman Name Society logo“Our biggest need is for more members and for people to share their Newman record finds so that we can build up our archive.”

Lisa Newman, The Cambridgeshire Family History Society

Cambridgeshire Family History Society logo

“I would say our biggest need is to encourage the next generation so that we maintain interest in the future in order to fund projects that preserve original material.”

“We also need support from the FFHS and (in a perfect world) the big internet sites to encourage people to join FHS’s.”

“With ever increasing competition from the big internet sites, why would someone join a society when they think all of the answers are available at the touch of a button? My colleague this week asked me if she typed her name in ancestry.co.uk would it work out who was related to who in her family? I think I visibly deflated at that point!  So I guess we also need to educate people to manage their expectations!”

What do you think?

What do you think of the society responses – any surprises? Leave a comment below, or join in the discussion over on LinkedIn.

In tomorrow’s Society Spotlight posting I ask the societies ‘What’s the Society’s biggest challenge?‘.