Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Pajama Game: Can a Romance Blossom Between Genealogy Societies and Stay-At-Home Genealogists?

Older, distinguished, intelligent, well-dressed, mature, local genealogy society who recalls the "good old days" seeks vibrant, younger, technologically-hip, pajama-clad, and very independent family history researcher with knowledge of the Internet. Can our love ever be?

Does anyone really think that stay-at-home genealogists entranced by their research successes made solely on the Internet could have a long-lasting and rewarding relationship with a genealogy or historical society, be it the brick-and-mortar or even virtual type? One wouldn't know it by reading James M. Beidler's recent article "Genealogy’s ‘Big Bang’ theory."

The scenario seems quite a bit like The Pajama Game: things aren't going so well between the owners and managers of the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory and soon-to-be-striking workers. The workers are demanding a seven and a half cent an hour raise but in return the company wants an "honest day's work." Will their relationship continue? Can common ground be found?

And while, in the course of the story, love seems to take hold all around (Sid, the factory superintendent and Babe, the union grievance committee leader; Hines, the efficiency expert and Gladys, the hot and steamy secretary to the factory owner) eventually so does the love affair between the factory and its workers. They realize that they need each other in order for both to succeed and they decide to commit to work together.

While Beidler bemoans that fact that many local genealogy societies have disbanded, are on their last dying breaths, or just can't attract new members, he doesn't realize that, as my mother used to say, "To get interest, you have to be interesting. To attract, you need to be attractive." Meaning, what does a genealogy society need to do to attract and interact with the stay-at-home genealogists who conduct all their research on the Internet? And since we all know that love is not a one-way street, what do these unanchored genealogy enthusiasts with all their high-tech gadgets need to do so they can benefit from and value the wisdom and experience of genealogy societies?

For the sake of this argument, well really not an argument but a "make up session," let's look at our soon-to-be happy couple: Mr. Gene Pool - he's the local or on-line group of enthusiasts with regular meetings and Ms. Ivana C. Ancestors - she's the stay-at-home enthusiast who flies solo in cyberspace.

Intelligent (wisdom gained through experience and years)Intelligent (wisdom gained through experience and lots of travel on the Super Highway)
Extremely independent (not open to new ideas)Extremely independent (open to new ideas but only if they are fast and furious)
Tendency to be myopic (cannot see new and more efficient ways of performing tasks)Tendency to be myopic (cannot see different ways of performing tasks)
Strong local ties (rooted in the local history)Strong ties to many locales (visits many different websites)
Large amount of resources ("but you have to be a member or visit the society's offices to really see them . . .")Large amount of resources ("but you have to be able to operate a computer to really understand them . . .")
Features include books, manuscripts, journals, family histories, microfilms/microfiche, records (resources which, over time, are in danger of being damaged, destroyed or lost)Features include on-line databases, search engines, blogs, websites(resources which can't always be shared with others who can't access them)
Knowledgeable contributor that interacts well with others (but only with his own type - he can't seem to connect with those Internet kids)Knowledgeable contributor that interacts well with others (but only with her own type - she can't seem to connect with those old genealogy fogies)
Field trips (tours of local sites, houses, and battlefields with valuable narration)Field trips (virtual tours of sites, houses, and battlefields with valuable audio and video narration)
Set in his own ways ("I've always done it this way")Set in her own ways ("I've always done it this way")

So while Ivana (our version of Babe) is off singing "But I'm not at all in love, not at all in love not I!" and Gene (our version of Stan) is off singing "Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes . . ." they really should be looking at their common interests and what they can do to embark on a loving journey. Or at the very least, a great friendship.

For each of our lovers, "putting out your shingle" means looking inward and asking the following questions:

Q: Could he/she really help me with my roadblocks?
A: Sure he/she could. Local societies not only offer different resources but allow you to interact with real live people who are experts in certain areas. And by participating in various genea-communities such as blogs or message forums, you can connect with others searching the same ancestors or same area - and do so much more quickly than snail mail or long expensive travel.

Q: Am I welcoming? Do I have an attractive disposition?
A: No one likes an elitist, and face it, both genealogy societies as well as pajama genealogists can play the game and quiet well. Statements such as "Well in my day we did . . ." or "If you were a certified genealogist . . ." as well as "How can you not know how to use the Internet for . . ." and "Don't you know that a Boolean search statement . . ." don't make people feel welcome. Be open and make others feel comfortable.

Q: Am I really available to him/her?
A: Accessibility. This means as a society, do I really make research material and personal knowledge available to new members or even non-members? Or do I make them jump through various hoops and hierarchies? And as an online genealogist, am I willing to take the time and share my methods with other online enthusiasts (maintaining a blog, posting forum messages, making blog comments)? And do I do the same with local society members (attend meeting, participate in committees, make presentations, volunteer to teach online research)?

Q: What does he/she have that I ain't got?
A: Ah, the sizing up. Sounds like a validity issue. This means that each person's methods and backgrounds are valid - it simply comes down to respect. Once that baseline is established then it is much easier to play "you show me yours and I'll show you mine."

Q: Is it possible for me to learn new tricks?
A: Societies definitely need to get into the computer age if they aren't already partially there, but they shouldn't feel the need to have the latest gadgets or forego all of the tried and true methods of research. Cyber-searchers need to realize that there really is value in visiting either local genealogical and historical societies as well as the websites for these institutions.

Q: What is the real value and how much will it cost me?
A: A good question that deserves an honest answer. Many members of the pajama set are beginning to question whether or not it is worth it to pay annual dues to their local societies or even online societies now that there are so many ways of getting the same information. In that same view are the members of the local groups - they really wonder if anything they find out on the Internet is really different and worth the technology investment. Isn't most of the data simply digitized versions of society collections?

Q: Why is he/she like that?
A: Realize what got the other person started on the search for their genealogy and family history. In the "pre-Roots" days, very often you first had to submit a pedigree in order to join a society. You had to write away and order local records or make trips to these offices and work within their available hours. You spent hours participating in cemetery readings and typing the results on an old Underwood typewriter.

Right after Roots, it seemed that things changed but not really and not right away. There was just more interest and more of a demand. Soon there would be desktop computers where you could create databases and type up those cemetery records. But there was still no Internet - Al Gore was still working on its creation.

But starting in the early 1990s, while many people saw the value in a connected online community, none more so than genealogists and family historians. And in our mad rush to get all these collections digitized, and write our blogs, and post our trees, we forgot how this all started: by different people connecting with a common interest. While we used to attend meetings and perform research at libraries and historical societies, we now do the same thing online. But we still need and want to connect.

I'm pretty sure that Gene and Ivana would make a very happy couple if they'd just turn around and face each other. Who knows? Someone could soon be changing her name to Ivana Pool.

Copyright 2008 by Thomas MacEntee


Miriam Robbins said...

Thomas, this is a great observation on your part. I consider myself extremely lucky to belong to a local society that has many members on the cutting edge: family historians who have decades of experience doing genealogy the old-fashioned way, but are eager to learn how to research online and use digital resources. We have the best of both worlds. Our only concern is that we don't have enough young people joining to make up the ranks of those elderly people who are passing away. I'm doing my part to encourage the students that take my online genealogy classes at the community college to join up. We've also had some success with younger and middle-aged people joining the society in order to take advantage of the computer classes we offer to members only.

Charles said...

I keep reading about genealogy societies being set in their ways, and refusing to change, but who should the gene societies cater to the dues paying members that come to all the meetings, volunteer for jobs in the society, help extract databases? Or the internet researcher that never comes to a meeting because they do not offer anything they can not get online already. I agree gene societies need to move more to researching online and to try to attract new younger members or they will die.


Terry Thornton said...

Thomas, Is it "can't live with em --- can't live without em" or is it "Ain't Love Grand'????? Thanks for this insightful look at an important issue.

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

I'll be attending my first society meeting next month. With the recent postings on the topic I'm not really sure what to expect. Miriam has a good point about societies needing to try and attract new members. I stumbled across their web page and happened to notice the schedule, otherwise I wouldn't know they exist. Hopefully we'll both have something to offer each other.

Jasia said...

You did a fine rebuttle my friend. See why I tagged you? ;-) As always, your post was well thought out and well written. We all just need to learn to live together in peace and harmony. I still think it's more comfortable to do research in our jammies but we can all throw on a pair of jeans now and then.

Elizabeth O'Neal said...

You are so funny and creative, Thomas. You've possibly inspired me to get off my fanny and join our local gen society. Hopefully they don't mind having toddlers attend. Start 'em young, right?

Ambar said...

My local gen society ... has their meetings at noon one Tuesday a month. This effectively discourages this working person from trying to attend (as my office is not in driving distance).

If there are gen societies who want younger members, scheduling an occasional meeting or workshop for a weekend couldn't hurt. :-)