Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Genealogy is Like Heroin

When I first started doing genealogy, it was the 1990s.  I did genealogy on the internet for fun with no intention of making it a second non-paying job taking up all my extra time and energy (and money).  I would imagine it’s how a lot of us start.  We don’t wake up one day and say, “I think I’m going to research my family history.”  It just comes in tiny, addictive little stages. 

Like heroin.  I’m sure heroin addicts don’t wake up one day and decide to be addicts, join the underworld of heroin doers, and spend all their money on it.  They just say, “Sure, I’ll try a bit of that.”

So one day, I said, “Sure, I’ll try a bit of that family history.”  And then it slowly filled my veins.

Because this was a slow process, it took me a lot of glassed-over glossy stares before I realized I should try to find others like me.  Other addicts to help me feel more normal and to be among my Own Kind.  And to ply me full of my drug of choice.  I found online places for this interaction (RootsWeb mailing lists, to name one), but then I wanted in person meetings.

That is when I did the old-timey Google equivalent (Alta Vista—remember them?!?!) for my town and genealogy.  Up came my local genealogical society.  A “society,” I thought?  I don’t need a whole society; I just need a few friends.  But I went to a few meetings and slowly adjusted. It was, I admit difficult, as they all talked to me like I’d just started genealogy, simply because I was relatively young and because I was new to their group.  At other society meetings, I had the same thing happen.  Treated like I’d never been exposed to genealogy, even though I have done it for quiet awhile.

Now, I don’t mean to pick on my beloved local society because I’ve had this same experience at every society meeting I’ve attended with any of the societies I belong to (Yes, plural.  Shut up.).  But it was very off-putting those first few meetings.

Curt Witcher in his speech on November 1 challenged our societies to be relevant, engaging, fun and worth it.  Along the lines of relevance, many of the societies I’ve joined gave me either hardcopy beginner genealogist forms or PDFs of the forms.  I’d say this is fine for brand new genealogists who haven’t got a computer and don’t know anyone with a computer.  But for anyone else, it’s a bit of a waste of time and money.   My local society has binders for each new member filled with forms, how-to guides and other information.  I’m not sure how often the how-to guides and other information are updated, but I really wonder if those forms and PDFs and how-tos are at all necessary or useful?  Instead, why not find out why a member is new before giving them what we think they want.  Have they been doing genealogy for 42 years, but just moved here?  Maybe local and regional information would be more appropriate.  Are they like me- been doing it but not part of a group?  Find out their level and expertise and try to use them!  Are they truly new?  Hook them up with another member who can be their genealogy mentor.  Don’t just give Family Group Sheets and Pedigree Charts to everyone across the board.  It’s costly and can even be a bit insulting.

Engaging… Has your society been together forever?  Do you all know each other and have social time before or after?  Include the new people!  My local society has visitors, new members and guests introduce themselves (or be mentioned).  That way we can make them feel welcome during the social part of the meeting.  And if you all do know each other, don’t assume that everyone knows everyone else.  Introduce everyone in your circle.  Talk about genealogy!  Find out what they do, how they do it, and how they can contribute to the society.  And how the society can contribute to them.

Fun… I think this is where we excel.  We are inherently fun because we all find the same thing fun: our family history.  But do we capitalize on this fun?  No.  We bury it in the word, “Society” and in the bylaws and newsletters and complaint departments.  We should bring it to the forefront so that everyone comes to meetings or special interest groups or opens newsletters and experiences more fun.

Worth it.  This one is the hard part.  Of course I think they are worth it because I belong to several.  If I didn’t, I would just stay in pjs instead of attending the general meetings, board meetings, project meetings, special interest groups, and field trips.  To me, they are worth it.  They give me a way to take AND give.  They give me a way to learn, make friends with the same interests, and they give me a way to help others.  But what do people want?  Our participation at events is low.  Why?  We clearly aren’t providing what they want in these events.  The writing group has about 6 of us that are diligently attending.  Out of 200 members.  I love my 6 so it isn’t something I’d change, but maybe the 294 others wish we had an underwater genealogy class.  Or a how-to find your grandma from outer space class.  If we just assume they want a writing group like I do, then we are again deciding what they want and complaining when they don’t rush to get it.

We need to get better at asking.  Our polls need to be more specific.  Our answers need to be more honest.  I belong to several societies in the towns across the country that my ancestors lived in.  I won’t go to their meetings ever.  But they’ve never asked me why I belong or I’d tell them it’s because I like their newsletter.  Or I’m thankful for the work they did on a project and want to show my support.

Do we know why each of our members is a member?  Why don’t we? 

Do they know why they are a member?  Why don’t they?

Now back to the heroine analogy.  A quote that applies to heroin AND genealogy:
“Anything worth doing, is worth overdoing.”
Nikki Sixx, The Heroin Diaries: A Year In The Life Of A Shattered Rock Star 

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