Saturday 1 September 2012

Something for the Weekend 14

Thanks to author Mike Sharpe for this week's effort. Please take a few moments to check out our man's book, the excellent Family Matters: A History of Genealogy - details at the foot of this post.

Anyone for the Big [Family History] Society?

As a reader of this blog no doubt you have an interest in family history. But are you a member of a local family history society? Most likely the answer is ‘no’, nor would you consider joining one. This is a shame because family history societies (FHSs) have much to offer.

My own society, the Birmingham & Midland Society for Genealogy and Heraldry (BMSGH), celebrates its 50th anniversary next year and I’m currently sorting through their archives for a short publication to mark the event. In doing so I have been reminded all too well about the strengths of FHSs, but also of how these once great institutions have been marginalised over recent years.

In their heyday, in the 1980s and 90s, FHSs were at the centre of the family history world. They offered members three key benefits. Firstly, education: societies were the first to organise courses for family historians, which enabled amateur researchers to build their skills. Secondly, they held specialist resources which could not be found anywhere else, such as indexes of BMDs, ‘strays’ (i.e. out of area finds), and monumental inscriptions. These were offered to members as a service and also sold to non-members to generate income. Thirdly, and uniquely, FHSs offered a community for researchers to learn from each other and share their common interests and advice.

Individually and collectively through their Federation, the FFHS, societies have had some major achievements. Many thousands of people have attended FFHS conferences (some of which ran over 3-5 days); the Federation successfully lobbied government departments, providing a much-needed voice for family historians at national level; and it coordinated nationwide projects such as the Big R and the National Burial Index.

But in recent years local societies have been overshadowed by the commercial companies who can do things much faster and on a much larger scale. Relying heavily on volunteers and with limited resources, FHSs have struggled to compete. Membership has fallen – quite dramatically in some cases – and the other staple income sources, book sales and data CDs, have also dropped. It is ironic that at a time when family history has never been so popular, family history societies are in decline.

The reason, it seems to me, is that local societies have failed to adapt. Their basic model – membership subscriptions supplemented by product sales – has remained largely unchanged whereas, as we all know, the world has moved on over the last 30 years.

To use internet speak, the FHSs are being ‘disintermediated’. Just like music companies and book publishers, people are shunning the middle-man and going straight to those offering the digital content instead, which in this case means the commercial providers. Why drive half way across town to a meeting when you can find all you want online?

Such attitudes miss a vital point, however. FHSs, like all community organisations, are not about what you can get out but about putting something back. If they are to survive and prosper, these societies desperately need a new model, one based on their community values.

FHSs have to become the focal points for all genealogical and local history interests in their areas. They need to build partnerships with commercial companies and get a fairer return on their valuable data. They should look to partner with local archives and record offices, which are themselves increasingly under threat from online providers and public sector cuts. They need much better web platforms so as to enable them to sell online and connect effectively with their members, including social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And they have to get better business skills on board so as to compete in the new dog-eat-dog world.

Some of these issues are being taken up by the Open Genealogy Alliance, but so far the initiative has failed to gain traction. Yet, an independent stream that can act as a counterbalance to the commercial companies is essential if we are to keep family history as a movement rather than let it morph into just another consumer market. Your local family history society needs you: isn’t it time you sought them out?

Mike Sharpe

Mike Sharpe’s book Family Matters: A History of Genealogy, describing the evolution of family history in Britain over the last 200 years, is published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd - see also

Contacts for local family history societies can be found on the FFHS website.

If you'd like to write an article for this blog, then please see my post concerning the matter, here. It's easy! 

1 comment:

  1. Mike makes some very telling points. But one thing he misses is that while the big commercial operators can do things faster and on a bigger scale, the results they provide are not always of a better quality. There is still - I think - a fair-sized niche where an FHS can provide something that is sufficiently better than Ancestry that it merits buying.

    The other great issue with FHSes is that the traditional model creates a two-tier membership. The local members get meetings, presentations, a library, opportunities to get together. The non-local members get a journal and (if the FHS is up to it) some material out of a website. The gap is simply too big, and very often any attempts to close it are stymied by the local members who are afraid that they will lose out.

    I write as a FHS member (I'm in the Channel Islands, where the situation is a little different but many of the issues are similar).