We're doing it wrong - family history survey response (4/5)

  • By Randy W Whited
  • October 20, 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 Randy Whited. Randy was recently elected to his first term as a Director on the Board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and is a member of the Williamson County, Austin, and Texas State Genealogical Societies.

Genealogy Survey Results for Family History Month

To my peers in genealogy society leadership: We’re doing it wrong.

While surveys such as the one from 1000memories consistently indicate high levels of interest in family history, many genealogical societies are seeing a decline in membership and some are folding altogether. How are we scaring off others who share our passion? Let’s start by asking the following: What does my local genealogical society look like to an outsider? Is it diverse? Engaging? Is it even relevant? Or would that outsider say “None of the above”?

Tackling those one at a time, I’ll start with diversity. I dug a little deeper into the 1000memories survey, looking for differences in age or gender. Perhaps surprisingly, there wasn’t a large difference between men and women or among different age groups. Respondents greater than age 55 were slightly more interested overall although those 18-35 tended to fall more into the most enthusiastic category.

In effect, we see that a desire to learn more about one’s family history isn’t tied to any single demographic. Take a hard look at the membership of your society. Heck, just look around at your next meeting. More likely than not you aren’t seeing a broad cross-section of your community, but rather a concentration of a particular age group and gender. If you were from outside the core group, would you feel welcome?

Another clue to the disconnect is the wording of the survey. Respondents were asked about the interest in their own “family history.” That’s the same thing as genealogy, right? Perhaps not to an outsider. How well do we engage our potential members?

By way of anecdote, I had the opportunity to meet a true beginner recently at a library lock-in. He had just begun his search a few weeks prior and happened to see a flier for the event. After chatting with him briefly, I realized he had no clue that the sponsor for the event was the local genealogical society. Not only that, he seemed confused at the idea of joining the society. He was intensely interested in family history but felt that genealogy was an academic study.

Finally, on relevance: What topics are typically presented at your local society? Are they family history friendly? Is it possible that we are erecting false barriers to entry in how we present ourselves? Family historians may just not see genealogy societies as relevant or needed for their pursuits.

With that in mind, what do we do now? How do we change to stay relevant and engage our larger community? The 40% gap revealed in the survey between those interested and those with family history knowledge is a tremendous opportunity and a challenge that should be pursued vigorously.

While social media is a great venue for reaching existing members, it is still fairly passive in reaching the broader community. To truly engage beyond our traditional demographic, we have to be active and face-to-face with that 40% directly.

Tackle new venues and change meeting and event times to bring in stay-at-home mothers (or fathers) and working professionals. Set up a table at neighborhood events such as ethnic festivals or food fairs. Organize volunteers to host a scanning party at a local library or cultural center as a service to the patrons.

Branding is key. Question what your goals are and how you want to be perceived. Determine how you can collectively do the most good in your community and add value to anyone with an interest in their family story. What do you have to offer?

Along those lines, one thing I absolutely love about 1000memories is the simplicity in its approach. It is best summed up in a quote from Jonathan Good in an earlier blog post: “The important part is not the process, but the end result - being able to share and enjoy memories, together.”

About Randy Whited

A data geek by nature with a degree in science (Astronomy, no less), Randy Whited spends his days as a data analyst to pay the bills. His free time is spent researching and volunteering for several genealogical organizations in a variety of roles. He was recently elected to his first term as a Director on the Board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and has an ongoing column in the FGS FORUM promoting society development and outreach. An avid genealogist for over twenty-five years, Randy is passionate about sound research skills, successful genealogical societies and all things tech.

He can be reached at whited.randy@gmail.com or found in his native habitat at Twitter as @RandyWhited

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