Kimmitt Genealogical Research

16 January 2012

Open-Mindedness and Compromise Not Dirty Words

Author's children, learning to compromise.

Play Nice!
It's not just true in politics: you see it everywhere you turn. It's a cultural thing. It even rears its ugly head in the genealogy world. It is not fashionable to be tolerant and patient. Somehow people have decided that they must not listen to anyone with a different view, and in fact, must condemn them. Is it for fear of weakening their own opinions? If so, it means that their view is founded on emotion, not facts. I've got nothing against emotion. But first I want to make sure that what I'm getting whooped up about is actually true. Only then can I truly express indignation. Nothing burns me up more than watching someone rant about something that is true only in the ranter's own mind. What a waste of energy. I think fear causes most of this, and fear can be alleviated through gathering more information about an issue.

Some people think they are being objective because they do seek others' opinions. They talk to people (their friends), watch the news (on one channel) or check things out on the web, usually starting with a Google search. It was recently reported in the news that Google searches don't return purely objective results. Google is learning about you by how you act online, what sites you visit, what you search for. So Google brings you what IT thinks you would like to see. This makes it tougher to seek out other points of view. Just as I get my news from multiple sources, including but not limited to various media outlets, so would I like to have a completely unbiased-in-my favor search result. I'm looking for truth, not stroking of my ego. Add to that the fact that Google has their own reasons for skewing the results, based on advertising dollars, and you have a cloudy vision of reality.

So what, you may rightly ask, does this have to do with genealogy? Open-mindedness and compromise are what lead us to continue learning even when we think we know it all, as many seem to these days. In particular, I'm thinking of genealogical societies. There is a crisis in genealogical circles today: a massive clash of the old and new style genealogist. Two vastly different demographic groups are intersecting after years of remaining isolated from one other, and creating what appears to be a rift.

We Can Fix This!
Many societies were founded in the 1980s, before computers, before the internet, when genealogy was unknown to most people. They were a great place to gather with like-minded souls, laugh about loving cemeteries and go on research trips together. The pace of research, and life in general, was exponentially slower. Most societies' members were limited to those able to travel to a convenient meeting place and who had local genealogical interests in common. Sharing surnames was a great ice-breaker and many people learned a lot from their peers. The members considered themselves experienced, well-rounded genealogists.

Once the internet catapulted many of us into warp speed, we found the web to be an increasingly fruitful way to research, organize and communicate with other genealogists. Many, many newer genealogists have never belonged to a genealogical society though, because the drive to network is not as strong nowadays, not at first. Online communities provide so much support that it takes a while for people to realize that there is nothing like live interaction to deepen the connection with others, enhance learning and create friendships with like-minded people. When developing genealogists reach this point in their experience it is natural to refer them to local societies.

No need to resort to fighting.
Lots of genealogical societies are still being run by the folks who founded them. It is a noble and healthy ideal to want to preserve tradition, and any institution is naturally resistant to massive change. But what has transpired with the introduction of the web is that every aspect of daily life has changed radically for the vast majority of the population. If societies do not start finding a way to welcome both younger and newer (not always the same) genealogists, they will simply fade out and finally fold once the older generation passes on.

The open-mindedness needs to go both ways, however. We repeatedly see the techno-genealogists join a society and their first instinct is naturally to help (whip) them into the 21st century. Because they have no need for it themselves, newer members might want to eliminate costly hard copy traditions and slower ways of the well ensconced members. This is generally met with a planted-foot stance and reluctance, if not absolute refusal to cooperate. This is because the two groups have not previously co-existed. So patience on all sides is warranted! There is, after all, a shared goal which can be explored and developed.

What will happen to these two groups?  I find myself smack dab in between and I can see that both sides need tolerance and patience for a few years. Do societies want to continue to survive? If so, they must find a way to welcome these changes without fear of losing the society's identity. The experienced leaders need to nurture and pass the baton to the newer ones. Fresh blood enriches any organization, pumping it with new ideas that create enthusiasm and pride in new accomplishments. They need to happily embrace technology and view it not as a threat, but as an enhancement to everything they have done and are doing. On the other hand, newer members need to understand that not everything can be accomplished electronically. The must listen between the lines and realize that some members are completely threatened by technology for a variety of reasons. They fear that the internet and computers will completely replace telephone calls and letters and paper newsletters, as sometimes they do. Surely there is a way to reassure them that they will still be valued members.

I would like to suggest that deliberate thought be given to connecting these two groups and all societies implement a bridging mechanism.

Hold on to the Past While Reaching into the Future
Cars can use covered bridges, too.
Designate a member to communicate by mail or phone with those who are not tech savvy. Yes, it is a major disruption to the way we conduct business in the 21st century. It interrupts the flow of communication and slows everything to a snail's pace. But generally those not on the computer simply want to be kept in the loop, and it is in the society's best interest to do so, given that they hold within them the institutional memory and have a perspective that we do not.

We can also work with those non-techie genealogists to introduce them to aspects of the web that could help them. Perhaps they do not have a computer. This could be due to financial constraints. Or it could be disinterest or even disdain. Then again, may it is just because they don't know where to start. There are computers in libraries where we can access and other databases, even set up email accounts. We can have a ten-minute mini-lesson by laptop at the beginning of every meeting, where we offer explanations of jargon, perhaps something like, "What Exactly is a Blog, for Goodness' Sake," or introduce a new website. A little demonstration of how to send email to more than one person, or include an attachment could be very helpful. Seemingly simple things can empower those not familiar with them. Sometimes people just don't know the questions to ask, and once you start explaining you will receive a flood of questions, and see the relief on their faces when they realize it isn't as daunting as they had feared.

Look for ways to record the history of your society and put it up on your website. New members can interview experienced members and write down their memories and highlights from the past.

Alert the membership to the fact that digital publications cost very little to store, nothing to mail, and take up no space. Inventories can be reduced, not eliminated. Assure them that you will still mail out paper copies to those that need them, but that there will be a great savings in cost if publications go digital. With this reduction in printing costs you may be able to reduce or even eliminate dues. There is nothing to lose for those who still require hard copy, and everything to be gained for those that don't.

Lay the Groundwork for the Future
At the same time, the newer genealogists can be tutored in offline record groups, local repositories, and well established methodology. Members with 25 years of experience probably know who the local clerks and librarians are and can share handy research tips. And again, learning the history of your society means you will not repeat errors of the past. So often newer people assume that things have never been done, then find they have. Isn't it best to learn what happened before plowing into it all over again?

Nobody is saying it is easy. Societies are folding all over the country. The only way we are going to prevent that is if we can get these two previously isolated groups to co-mingle. Be open-minded, patient, reassuring and instructive, and with some compromise on both sides we will make it happen!


[Thank you to Ryan and Nathan for allowing me to use your images royalty-free!]


Focus Grandma! FOCUS!! said...

Wonderful post, Polly. I found your page from Google+'s post by Marian Pierre-Louis. Thank you

Marian said...


I will admit to being in the tech category though I have respect for the traditional methods. It takes a certain amount of savvy and finesse to help bring two groups together when at least one doesn't agree as to how to proceed. I regret that I am lacking in diplomacy. But being non-confrontational, instead of pushing my view I have withdrawn a number of times from groups who rather forcefully could not or would not try to understand where I was coming from. I think the right person with patience can help bring about the gentle change that is needed is these situations. I do regret that I lack that capability. I find my most comfort in organizations that will give me a role and then just trust me to go with it.

Polly F. Kimmitt said...

Oh, I'm in the tech category, too, Marian. And I get so frustrated, and have been thinking about it for quite a few years now as I watch societies crumble. I won't feel right if I don't give the non-techies every chance I can to reach across the divide and strengthen the organization. But it takes a lot of patience and willingness on both sides .

Caroline said...

Okay. Everyone is going to think this is absolutely false. BUT? I'm in the middle. Maybe it's the Texas breeding' my mama gave me, but I believe in meetin' people where they are. Am I a technology geek? Absolutely. But do I like sittin' down with someone an' shootin' the bull? Absolutely. What can I say? I'm a hybrid. I want to share with folks how to do things easier and more efficient. In the genealogical society that Amy Coffin & I go to, we are not overtly preaching the virtues of technology. We're showin' up once a month a makin' friends.

Which, if you kinda think about it, is what we do online. Make friends.


Polly F. Kimmitt said...

C, Why would anyone think that's false?? It's the ideal way to co-mingle. That's what I'm saying: there is so much to gain by holding onto what people have done in the past. Sometimes there are those who refuse to cooperate or even share their knowledge, though, because they are afraid of it being taken from them, or for whatever reason. BUT, there are lots and lots more sweethearts who just want to share what they know. We can't let them get lost in the technology shuffle.

Caroline said...

I just meant that some might find it hard to believe that *I* am more of a hybrid than I am purely a techie person. One who follows me online may get the impression that I'm all techie, but I'm not.

And I'm all about sharing. =)

Thanks Polly for a great post.

Polly F. Kimmitt said...

Oh, I'm not surprised. I think it has more to do with patience and long-range view sort of thing. Sometimes I get really frustrated. Of course it all depends on who you're dealing with, lol. You come across as a wise soul who is really good at techie things, too.!

Peter said...

Well, our society has weathered the transition to electronic (PDF) newsletters well and techie education. For the past two years we've given an all day Saturday "Computer Skills for Family Historians" seminars. Plus, this coming meeting we will be having an " Search Techniques" program. Plus, we are having Dick Eastman come in for a "Saturday with Dick Eastman" day at the beginning of March.

BUT, much of what Polly says rings true for us. Our membership is vastly senior and we have to keep recycling most of our past officers and chairmen to keep those positions filled. It's not clear why members don't want to participate in helping to lead the society.

What is clear, at least to me, is why we have minimal younger members. Our meetings are on Monday mornings. We've explored changing to evenings but it's obvious we would lose the vast majority of our senior aged members attending our meetings-programs.

However, we have an wonderful chance coming up to change things. Due to what I think is excellent newspaper publicity by our new, younger and previously experienced Publicity Chairman, our 6 week beginning genealogy class which starts tomorrow (typically less than 30 students enrolled) maxed out at 40 with a waiting list, AND, a second class we scheduled to start in March made up of our waiting list folks, also maxed out at 40 and also has a waiting list!

Considering that we had 136 paid members at the end of 2011, this is stunning. It is an opportunity we can't afford to waste. And we won't. I'm a recycled past president of the society who is president again because we couldn't get anyone else to run. This opportunity has practically been handed to us on a silver platter. We'd be fools to let almost 80 new members slip away.

Polly? Anybody else? Do you have any ideas about how we attract these new genealogists to stay with us as members and participate in the society?

Thanks and take care... Peter Bradish, President, Brevard Genealogical Society, Cocoa, FL

P.S. We have typically lost over 90% of the new members from our past classes and don't know why, so please don't hesitate to suggest anything you feel could help us keep these new folks. :-)

Polly F. Kimmitt said...

Peter, sounds like you have really been giving it some thought and come up with great ways to educate the membership.

You bring up two major stumbling blocks: the first being the refusal to change meeting times. That is a sure way to shut the doors to the society UNLESS you have a web presence that can duplicate the experience by webinar or something similar. Or maybe you could have a two monthly meetings, sort of overlapping them occasionally? A lot of extra effort, given the fact that it's hard enough to get people to participate as it is!

Just the fact that you are thinking about it means you'll probably survive it all.

Family Curator said...

I agree that there is a vast divide between tech and old-school interests, but as Peter wrote, there are other interests at play too. I think there are always people who will come to workshops, lectures, classes, etc., who just aren't ''joiners." if you want them to become members, they have to find what they want... More of the same. Societies that offer webinars and other educational opportunities draw in this type of member.

One way to develop an involved membership is to involve people in meaningful projects where their contributions have real value. People won't always volunteer either, they may need to be individually invited to participate. This is not always easy, but it can lead to a great core for any organization.