Genealogical Societies: They Do Your Genealogy Good

by Thomas MacEntee | Nov 4, 2010

Thomas MacEntee

Just as humans were not meant to lead solitary lives, it is also true that genealogists can't function without some form of social interaction among their colleagues. While there are many options to interact with others who share your same passion for hunting down ancestors, one of the mainstays is the genealogical society.

For me, I can't imaging pursuing my family research without being part of at least a national or local genealogical society. Especially in these days when you can do much of your research online and in the comfort of your own home, being involved with a society allows me to interact with like minds in the genealogy community.

If you haven't checked out a genealogical society lately you might be in for a surprise. These aren't your grandfather's societies: many are using social media to involve their members and attract new members; many offer substantial discounts on publications and even online research subscriptions; some provide access to databases from the comfort of your home; and you'll find a wide array of genealogy enthusiasts involved in education activities.

Do Your Research

Just as genealogists prefer to research an ancestor before making a conclusion about the facts in their lives, there is also a duty to research a genealogical society before deciding to get involved - or not get involved.

  • Ask your fellow genealogists if they are already members of the society and get their opinion on various aspects. Ask about meetings, the board that runs the society, the activities, etc. Try to get an idea as to whether or not this society will be a good fit.
  • Check out the website for the society and also see if they have a social media presence (blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Even if the society isn't on Facebook or Twitter, don't discount them - see this as an opportunity to get them on-board if social media is your thing.
  • Investigate the various educational offerings in the form of classes, workshops, conferences and the like. Also find out if there are any member discounts available that you can use when you purchase other genealogy items such as publications or even subscriptions to your favorite online research websites.
  • If the society has a library or archive, pay a visit and see if you can get a day pass or trial membership. Ask for a tour of the facility and let them know you are considering joining.

Take a Genealogical Society Test Drive

Before you discount the value of your local genealogical society, you owe it to yourself to at least attend a meeting of the society or an upcoming event.

  • Show up early and take time to socialize. As a new face it shouldn't be difficult to do! However, if before or after the meeting, someone from the society does not come up to you and introduce themselves, then there is definitely something wrong with their outreach efforts. You might want to consider a friendlier group and look for a different society to join.
  • Ask questions. Lots of questions. Let other members know that you are considering joining their society but you want to know how being part of the society has improved their genealogy.
  • Pick up an application and other materials. Don't leave empty handed. Make sure you have all the information you need to make a decision as to whether or not you should join this particular society.

Beware the "Would You Like To Volunteer" Checkbox!

When you complete the membership application for a genealogical society, you will encounter a section where you can sign-up to be a volunteer. Think long and hard about making this commitment! But seriously, if you do, I can personally tell you it will be one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have in the genealogy community.

Genealogical societies rely upon not only the monetary contributions of their members and other benefactors, but also on the talents and skills that their members freely contribute as well. Societies can't possibly offer all the services they do if it weren't for their committed volunteers.

Even if you leave "that box" blank, don't be surprised if someone from the organization seeks you out. One area of skills that many societies need right now involve technology and social media. These tools are needed not just to publicize events and activities, but also to attract a younger demographic to the world of genealogy.

Access Online Research Databases

One way to gain access to online research resources - beyond the offerings provided by Ancestry and Family Search - is to join a genealogical society with unique collections of records that are made available to members only.

  • The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) offers amazing databases to its members including Massachusetts Vital Records, Abstracts of Wills, Administrations and Guardianships in NY State, 1787-1835, and more. Also the NEHGS collection of genealogical journals from across the country is outstanding.
  • The Indiana Genealogical Society (IGS) has an amazing 400 members-only databases accessible through its site. Collections include African-American records, church records, county-level records and more
  • The Ohio Genealogical Society (OGS) offers vital records indices for Ohio births, marriages and divorces as well as other databases.

Take Advantage of Educational Programs

I find that researching my family's history means I always need to keep learning about new techniques and new ways of looking at my research. Genealogical societies are an excellent way to access classes, workshops and research trips led by nationally known lecturers and educators.

  • Most, if not all, societies hold an annual conference or workshop. Usually these events are a day filled with one or more speakers and sometimes seem like a mini-conference with a vendor exhibit hall included.
  • The National Genealogical Society (NGS) offers free online educational courses for its members
  • The California Genealogical Society and Library (CGSL) has a wide array of educational opportunities available for its members. These include research trips to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah as well as the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. And the in-house workshops and classes are exceptional. (Disclosure: I am a bit biased since as a far-flung member, I've actually led several classes including one on how to locate living relatives.)

Discounts and Freebies Abound

Believe it or not, some family historians join genealogical societies just for the discounts and never attend a meeting or use the library or research facilities. As an example, here is what some societies are offering their members:

  • Almost every genealogical society will offer discounts on registration to annual conferences, workshops and other paid events. In addition there is often a discount for the purchase of society publications as well as any lookup or research services offered.
  • The Illinois State Genealogical Society (ISGS) offers substantial discounts on Illinois Death Certificates from 1916 - 1947. As a member the cost is $6.00 while ordering the same certificate from the Cook County clerk's website, for example, would cost $15.00!
  • NEHGS offers discounts on DNA testing kits, a 10% discount in its store, and even hotel discounts!
  • Both NGS and NEHGS membership will get you a 10% discount on the Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research program.

Don't Forget Far-Flung Societies

Why limit yourself to the genealogical societies in your own backyard? Consider this: if you live in California, it is likely that your ancestors made the migration from points East. Figure out the states where they lived and then seek out those societies.

Join to Give Back and Show Support

There are certain societies that attract members because of the resources they offer to the genealogical community at large. Many of their members are not local and join online or by sending a check, and do so just as a way of saying thanks.

Personally, I can speak to this as a member of at least 15 genealogical societies, some are far away but I admire their work and their contributions. I may use their online databases, or their publications, and I just want to show my support. Two societies worthy of such support because of their New York City Vital Records are the German Genealogy Group and the Italian Genealogy Group.

Also being a member allows me to have a voice. Even if I can't volunteer to assist with activities, I can from time-to-time send an email to the leadership of the society and weigh in with my ideas and thoughts. And very often the society will seek my input via surveys or emails.

Finally, you can also show your support in non-monetary ways: if you have a blog or website, consider carrying a link to the society's site or Facebook page. The more exposure the society can get, the more members they can attract and thus augment and expand their offerings to the community.

If you've not yet checked out a local, state or national genealogical society, take some time to do so. You might be surprised at how joining a society can not only improve your genealogy research, but it can greatly expand the experience we all call "genealogy."

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