Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Historical and Genealogical Society of Tomorrow

As a child, I grew up watching old school cartoons--especially those by Tex Avery. I remember sitting on the floor in my grandparent's second story apartment in rural Maryland, eating carrot sticks and watching the bizarre antics of politically incorrect animals. Among my favorites was the World of Tomorrow, the satirical look into the new century through the lens of the 1950s.

It's in that same tongue-in-cheek, yet curious spirit that I find myself asking what the historical and genealogical societies of tomorrow will look like. This question is largely inspired by my interactions with many different genealogical and historical societies over the past few months. I've had experiences both good and bad--both of which indicate where these societies will strive and struggle to find their place in the future.


With that, I present to you... The Historical and Genealogical Society of Tomorrow!

Updates

If a genealogical society is still spending money on sending paper newsletters through the mail, their organization is trapped in 1998. And if their website hasn't had any sort of major overhaul since then, I rest my case.

Social media, blogging, and email will take the place of paper newsletters in the genealogical society of the future. There are too many other important, meaningful ways their financial resources could be used than by sending out paper. Because paper newsletters are usually disseminated monthly or quarterly, to be heard from so infrequently is a losing battle for relevance. And as conserving natural resources grows in importance, unnecessary uses for paper will become increasingly unconscionable.

Throughout the years, many societies have tried to cut costs with low budget websites, and have avoided making real investments in their web presence. But it isn't enough to stick a Facebook badge on the old website and to call this the future. The HTML relics of yesteryear, complete with technicolor Comic Sans font and Clip Art bouquets, need to be given a proper burial. Today and tomorrow these websites need to be replaced by smarter solutions, especially for storage and security.

Because genealogical and historical societies of the future will take their place on the front lines of digitization, their websites need to become robust repositories of information. Becoming an online community trust means providing original records, transcribed indexes, photos, maps, better catalogs and directories for newspapers, books, periodicals, and vast collections of other records. Becoming the first providers for all legally available records is a market just waiting to be created.

If historical and genealogical societies want to participate in that market, they need to prepare themselves by stepping firmly into the future with their technology.

Collaboration

Preserving local history is a community affair. It requires interaction between organizations of all kinds, at every level. The historical and genealogical society of the future knows how to be the bridge between these organizations. Schools, colleges and universities, libraries and archives, courthouses and public offices, civic organizations, and businesses, and government offices of every kind, each play a role in this mission. Finding, protecting, digitizing, and sharing a community's history is a shared responsibility. Anyone can play a part, and successful societies recognize they can reach out to anyone.

Military participating in cemetery cleanup in Hawaii
Historical and genealogical societies of the future know how to create volunteer opportunities, both online and offline. They identify and exercise every resource at their disposal. If creating a new index means paying for scanning services, they're the ones to create and promote the GoFundMe campaign. Then they reach out online for volunteer indexers. When it finally comes time to build or expand the website for a new collection, they find the college students in web design who need an internship to graduate. These societies understand that when they unite diverse groups in a common love of family and history, they make their communities better places to live.

Collaboration in historical and genealogical societies of the future also means looking beyond immediate geography. Various historical records are no longer kept in the places that created them. Some of the most passionate historians do not live anywhere near the places they study. Societies will expand their reach to these places and people. Because these societies are looking to adapt, they will find ways to expand their membership offerings to those outside their communities, both online and offline.

Meetings are Old News

Gone will be days where the only way to attend meetings of these organizations is to actually live nearby. The genealogical societies of tomorrow will accept that the newest generation, in order to adapt to an ever-changing economy, has become one of the most transient in history. Their first cross country move is a rite of passage, their first experience living abroad a must-have. Especially for the minimalist urban living which defines the Millennial generation, the thought of a meeting that cannot be attended remotely is incomprehensible. Yes, including for genealogy, because hardly any of us live in the communities where our ancestors lived.




Webinars, Google Hangouts, and live YouTube events are the meetings of the future. It's what the new generation expects from any organization to which it gives its paying patronage. Attendance is not limited by geography, time zone, or day of the week. The most experienced researchers for a community may not actually live there, but they can be engaged and participating with the genealogical community who does. Because all that is required to create a YouTube channel is a computer, an internet connection, and a device that records video, anyone can do it. Google and YouTube have made all of the investment to make the software, the interface, and hosting the video available for free.

The only limitations for historical and genealogical society meetings of the future are a lack of imagination, and willingness to learn.

Generational Culture Clash

Historical and genealogical societies of the future understand that reaching my generation is crucial to their survival. Embracing new technology means bringing us into their organization by default. The environment the society creates by the activities they engage in will determine if we will choose to stay.

Reaching and retaining our generation is summarized in one word--inclusion. We want to feel included in every part of the society--decision making, leading projects, organizing events, spending funds, all of it. Our voices need to be heard, and have an impact. At the same time, we need to feel everyone else is included, too.

The most compelling way to attract our crowd in the future will be by preserving a more inclusive history. As the genealogical and historical societies of the future become the force behind creating new record collections, they need to include all types of people in these collections. Millennials are interested in minorities, the underdogs, the "forgotten" history not included in the history books. In many communities, the history of African Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community, and even women have received almost no attention by their local historical and genealogical societies. By collecting and preserving the records from these populations of their community, these societies choose to be inclusive. They become inviting places for my generation and our values.

Paywalls

The place where inclusiveness will fall apart most often for historical and genealogical societies of the future is the Paywall. Paywalls have made their way into the genealogical community, and their place has been unquestioningly embraced by many historical and genealogical societies already. 

But my generation hates paywalls. We hate them because they are not inclusive--they exclude someone from information, services, and a community based on their ability to pay. Because Millennials are the greatest consumers of digital media, we're the ones most affected by Paywalls. In staggering economies where we're also the ones most affected, we're the ones with the least disposable income. We resent paywalls both on principle, and out of self-preservation. 

But that doesn't mean our generation isn't willing to part with money. We prefer to donate and give based on the value of what we feel we have received. We embrace payment options that allow us to give according to what we have. Where we can't give money, we're often willing and able to work, trade, or barter. 

More than anything else, we delight in proving that you can accomplish more by being less concerned with money. In order to appeal to the Millennial generation, embracing this philosophy will be a necessary part of organizational growth and transition.





As a matter of demographic disclosure, I am 25 years old. I have been actively researching my genealogy for ten years. I consider myself an advanced non-professional. I am a paperless genealogist, and I do the vast majority of my research online. As part of the first generation to grow up in the Digital Revolution, there was never a time where I had to do genealogy without the Internet. To put it bluntly, I am incurably hard wired to share because to me, that is what genealogy has always been.

I have also never joined a historical or genealogical society. I have nothing against them. But I have also never come across one that was interested in the communities I research, who also has much to offer as I have to give.

My most recent experience with a genealogical society demonstrates how much adapting there is to do--both for these groups, and for me and the denizens of tomorrow. I contacted a genealogical society, in search of plot information for a cemetery which has not been well digitized. It will take years to identify all of the people, especially those of African descent, who are buried there without headstones. This society's is the most comprehensive database that exists online for that cemetery. However, it is also behind a paywall. 

I attempted to negotiate, offering to trade information with them. If they had no information about my family's exact location in this cemetery, that confirmation alone would be helpful. At which point, I would gladly give their names, death and burial dates, and my original sources--to add to the database. My instinct is to share.

The person I spoke to insisted at first that I buy a membership in order to access the cemetery collection on my own. The society only offers an annual membership, priced at $30. Their website has no other collections pertinent to my research. I live hundreds of miles away, and cannot attend any of their meetings. The bulk of that expense is to create and send a paper newsletter I don't want, and is not relevant to my research. But this is the way things have always been done. 

We spend all of this time trying to figure out how to tear down our brick walls, and now we're finding better ways to build them between each other. 

And maybe it was foolishness, maybe it was desperation, but I asked the person on the other side of the wall if perhaps there wasn't a better way.

I didn't get an answer right away. I didn't expect to get one at all. But the person--a woman, come to find out--took a brick out of the paywall, and passed me a name for a missing daughter I had never seen before. She even threw in some contact information for the caretakers of the cemetery and its records--a contact I never would have found on my own. And true to my word, I sent the names, dates, and sources for the rest of my family members buried in that cemetery.

I tried to be an example of the change and collaboration--the future--I believe in. Part of envisioning the future in genealogy is being part of the changes you hope to see. And my greatest hope is that this type of common sense cooperation becomes the rule of the future, not the exception.