Societies and the Non-Genealogist Genealogist - family history survey response (3/5)

  • By Amy Johnson Crow
  • October 19, 2011

Over the weekend we shared the results of our recent survey on family history. The survey found that more people than ever are interested in learning about their family history but they (on average) know even less about their genealogy. This week, five of the genealogy community’s top thinkers will share their reactions. Today we feature Amy Johnson Crow.

Genealogy Survey Results for Family History Month

The recent 1000memories.com survey showed that there is an increasing disconnect between the percentage of people who are interested in their family history and the percentage who can name more than one great-grandparent. There are likely a number of causes for this. Perhaps a greater percentage of people are interested but have not yet actually started any research. Perhaps a greater percentage of people have hit brick walls very early in the process. But could there be another, more basic, reason?

Could it be that more people do not equate family history with genealogy?

There has been debate for some time as to whether “genealogy” and “family history” are synonymous. In one camp are those who contend they are different: genealogy is the “begats,” while family history is the “stuff” wrapped around it. The other camp says that they are two sides of the same coin and can be used interchangeably.

Regardless of the semantics, not everyone who is interested in their family story identifies themselves as genealogists. A colleague of mine recently showed me some old family photos that she was very excited to have found. I told her she needed to record the stories behind the photo - why the family was gathered, whose house they were in. She said that, yes, she should and would, and then quickly added, "But I'm not a genealogist."

My colleague is what I call a “non-genealogist genealogist.” She is a woman with a clear interest in her family's history and wanting to preserve it, but who did not consider herself a genealogist. She recognized the importance of the family photos and looked for ways to preserve them. Isn't that something a genealogist would do? Does the fact that she doesn't self-identify as a genealogist change the contribution that she makes to her family's heritage?

If fewer people who are interested in their family’s history and heritage identify themselves as genealogists, it could have a tremendous impact on genealogical societies. If a society is focused only on those who are actively researching, it is missing out on a sizable audience.

A lot has been written and said in recent years about genealogical societies needing to change if they are to survive. Meetings on Tuesdays at 2:30pm generally work only for the retired. Websites that were last updated two years ago make the society look dead to anyone who finds them via a Google search. Focusing on local members often comes at the expense of distance members. Updating these aspects are fairly straightforward. But just as all of these can turn off potential members, so can a society's attitude.

Are genealogical societies too focused on the begats? Is everything they offer geared toward the professional or serious hobbyist? Does everything revolve around records, sources, and methodology? How inviting and meaningful are societies to people like my colleague who are interested in their heritage, but don't consider themselves genealogists?

Beginning genealogy classes are not the answer by themselves. Those reach people who either identify themselves as genealogists or, at least, soon-to-be genealogists. Attendees are already interested in learning how to identify the members of previous generations. It is crucial to reach these people, but there are others who would benefit from what a genealogical society has to offer.

Leaders in the community have urged genealogical societies to embrace technology in order to reach new members and keep current ones. Some societies have done a great job with databases, interactive websites, and electronic newsletters. Where many societies are missing an opportunity to leverage technology is in their public programs.

Public programs can be a great way to expose people to the society. Many programs are well-suited to be beneficial to the “non-genealogist genealogist.” Technology programs, for example, can be marketed to a wide audience. Instead of offering “Using Your Scanner for Genealogical Research,” why not offer “Using Your Scanner to Preserve Family Photos and Documents”? Same program, different title (and one that would appeal to anyone who wants to preserve family photos). Similarly, programs on topics such as digital scrapbooking, photo restoration, and journalling can all be marketed to more than just genealogists.

This is not to say that genealogical societies should abandon the begats. After all, the ultimate question in genealogy is “Who were the parents?” But if they are to survive, genealogical societies need to recognize that not everyone is ready to ask that question and begin looking for the answer. Further, they need to recognize that just because someone isn’t asking that particular question doesn’t mean that they are not interested in family history. Welcoming the “non-genealogist genealogist” is another way that genealogical societies can survive, and even thrive, well into the future.

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When she's not busy trying to convince people that they really are genealogists, Amy Johnson Crow is a busy website and database developer, researcher, and writer. She has held numerous volunteer positions in genealogical societies and firmly believes that societies can adapt and thrive. Amy recently earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science, concentrating on digital libraries and digital preservation. Her blog at AmyJohnsonCrow.com combines her enthusiasm for genealogy and technology. She can be reached at amy@amyjohnsoncrow.com or on Twitter at @amycrow.

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