This is Why Your Society Isn’t Attracting Younger Members

Last summer I attended a talk by nationally-acclaimed genealogist D. Joshua Taylor advising genealogy societies how to recruit the younger generation.  He opened my eyes to the differences between my generation’s genealogy goals and the mainstream’s:  we value the stories of people’s lives over individual facts and prefer to share our findings in digital, multimedia formats, not traditional charts. (His assessment subsequently inspired Treelines’ emphasis on narrative over data. 🙂 )

This talk came to mind recently when my friend Elliott, a fellow next-generation genealogist, shared with me the culmination of his latest research — a touching blog entry written in the voice of his great-great-grandfather as he tells his life story, reflects on Elliott’s efforts in uncovering it, and philosophizes about the changes in his family four generations later.*  With accompanying family photographs it proved a beautifully effective, if non-traditional approach to get across what Elliott saw as the lessons of his gggf’s life and the vagaries of historical research.

Elliott sought feedback on his efforts from the geographically-proximate society.  Here is the condescending email he received in return:

The website is very nice, but as I believe I wrote to you months ago, a family tree or at least a list of surnames and locations would be more helpful to genealogists seeking connections.

Did you hire a professional to go into the archives in [country] to obtain documents to prove relationships? It doesn’t appear you have taken full advantage of [Society]’s projects to translate records and make them available to contributors.

President, [Society]

It’s true, Taylor explained, that the younger generation takes a less rigorous approach to research, hence the society leader’s assumption that because Elliott mostly did not cite his sources, he must be a novice (though the essay obviously reflected significant research, some of which I watched him do at our local Family History Center.)  So how did she handle this opportunity to educate?

  • She instructed him that the superior way to share a family history is to organize research into traditional formats.
  • She suggested that laypeople can’t do adequate research on their own.
  • She insulted his thoroughness without actually offering any concrete direction on how to take advantage of [Society]’s resources, or investigating if [Society] even has any relevant information, perhaps because:
  • He’ll have to pay money to her organization to find out.

In short, she heaped scorn upon Elliott for her own failure to recognize the merits of his creative approach and presented a mix of helpful and doctrinaire recommendations as antithetically as possible to his outlook.  Taylor recommended a subtler approach: use the next generation’s focus on personal discovery to encourage methodology as a route to even greater discovery.

Woe betide her society that it so little understands where its audience is headed and how to cultivate it.  Its future depends on understanding, not criticizing why the next generation is channeling their family history interests into creative presentations like Elliott’s.

* I am not linking to Elliott’s blog to avoid identifying the society.

16 thoughts on “This is Why Your Society Isn’t Attracting Younger Members

  1. Great entry. It does explain a lot about why the younger generation is less likely to be involved in a genealogy society. I attended a meeting a few months ago and someone was asking about what disease that the death cause listed actually was…there was a discussion for a few minutes with everyone offering suggestions of what it was. Instead, they should have been told as to how to find the information themselves on the internet. Too many are involved with finding the facts but not the story. The story is much more interesting.

    • Really good point! The younger generation may be novices in genealogical research, but search is a natural part of their lives. You’re totally right that the education opportunities for societies are different in the age of the easily Googled answer.

  2. Tammy – I just discovered your blog, and wanted to compliment you, not only on a terrific overall blog, but also on this post in particular. I suspect I am older than you, which would likely place me in the age range of the person who responded with such TONE to your friend, Elliott. However, I find myself much more aligned with your perspective – it is precisely that TONE which keeps many amateur genealogists (regardless of age) from pursuing their family histories. They are told they cannot possibly be doing it correctly, so why do it at all? I think Elliott’s method of setting forth his story is one that would seem to be the reason any of us do this at all … to tell the story, to connect with the past, and to learn from it. I am a relatively new “genealogist” [I use the term loosely for fear of stepping on proper toes], and a very new blogger, but I found real connection here at your blog, and plan to check in regularly. Keep up the good work, and call ’em as you see ’em !!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m so glad to have you as a reader! 🙂

      You make an interesting distinction between amateur and professional genealogists, which I agree with. Not all of us aspire to be professionals or to do professional-quality work, and I personally am fine with that (though I’m familiar with the complaints by the professionals — which are usually expressed in the TONE of which you speak!). I love how you put it — so many of us just want to “to tell the story, to connect with the past, and to learn from it.” We’re not looking to claim authority over the information we learn, which is a HUGE difference. While I appreciate the drive towards professionalism in the field, it takes all kinds, and there needs to be room for the enthusiastic amateurs who make this industry what it is.

      Thanks for pointing out this important distinction! Maybe one day I will have the guts to write a post attacking this more controversial issue head-on! 🙂

      P.S. I *love* what you’re doing w/ orphaned photographs on your blog!

  3. Just found your site and love it. I agree with your assessment. I understand the need to have a professional standard but it is not the whole landscape. And that approach can (does not have to to, though) marginalize the power of story. And story is what connects us, not the vital records.

    I can’t wait to see your new product as it is something I have been looking for having a background in information design.

    • Thank you so much for your interest and for taking the time to leave a comment! Obviously I strongly agree that stories are what connects us, which is why I am so hopefully that Treelines will resonate with users like you once it launches. Please be patient — we’re building as fast as we can. 🙂

  4. As a relatively new family historian – about six years – I agree with your sentiments, but don’t agree that it is generational. Rather, I believe that it is a current shift of emphasis in family history. If you are younger and just starting, you might perceive it as generational. I hear from many individuals in the “older” generation who decry the accumulation of names and dates and tell of their love for the story. Blogs are full of these wonderful stories. I have told of my gg-grandfather bringing home his dead son during the civil war, a grandmother who helped a poor woman deserted by her husband, or a swift moving diphtheria epidemic that took the life of a 5 yr. cousin. If Hollywood is looking for new material, they need look no further than family history blogs.

    I do agree that some local historical societies need to be more open and need to seek out individuals with technology skills who can attract more people. Just this morning, I tried to find out about joining a historical society in a county where I have many ancestors. It was last updated in 2009. I wonder how often they read their email?

    • I’m so glad to know it isn’t as generational as I’ve perceived it! (Bodes well for the future of the Treelines storytelling tool! 🙂 ) It seems like a lot of the people who’ve left comments, like you, prefer to see the divide as falling between personally-motivated hobbyists and standards-driven professionals. I don’t disagree! But the voices are not heard equally in the genealogy community today.

      The stories from your own family sound really compelling — Hollywood *should* call you for material! In my own family I’ve often seen that family history is better than fiction — and much more moving, as these moving events affect who *we* are today.

      Thanks for taking the time to write!

      P.S. I also spent years contacting my relevant societies to help with technology, but no one ever answered me.

  5. Great post! I started researching my family tree about 3 years ago. I’m now 28 and very much a part of the minority in terms of family history researchers. I’m also one of the younger generation that loves the stories of my ancestors but at the same time, I also love the facts. I adore writing up their stories but I’m not happy unless I have sources listed! 🙂

    • Thanks for reading! You make a good point about citing sources. It depends who your audience is, though. For ourselves, we need to keep track of what we learn to keep advancing our research. For others, something overly academic can distract from the meaning. Like you, I am trying to balance both!

  6. Very interesting post. I am not in the older generation, but not in the younger, more tech savvy group, either. I guess that makes me the middle generation. I try to do a combination of both! I love stories – they bring the subject to life, but because I have seen so many errors and stories that have been …enhanced… , I like to see footnotes or some sort of references to sources. Yet, in a blog post, I feel a person has much more freedom. If someone reads the post and feels they are related they can contact the blogger to get the details and appropriate sources for citing in their own family records/trees.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

    • Thanks for your comment! I like your perspective — different approaches suit different audiences. We share our findings in so many different ways — as you say, we just need to find the right balance for each occasion.

  7. It was an interesting story but I think the original essayist was being oversensitive. In my opinion you NEVER have the right to speak in another person’s name, even an ancestor. You cannot really know how that person felt about anything unless they themselves wrote about it.

    I am in the process of writing a brief biographical sketch about one of my ancestors who lived in the 1600’s and it is full of language like “he must have felt”, etc. because I wouldn’t presume to write in another actual person’s voice. And this is AFTER the real, hard work of genealogy has been done, the “writing in charts” part that may not be fun, but must be done in order to be accurate and — just as importantly — for other genealogists to use for their own family research.

    Instead of whining about someone’s tone, why not just do the research suggested? You don’t have to join a society, just go to your local library and the librarians will be more than happy to help you on your way.

    • Thank you for your taking the time to read the blog! While we clearly have opposing opinions about what the “real” work of genealogy is, I appreciate your thoughts! It takes all kinds, as they say. 🙂

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