Given the immense quantity of material available through Ancestry and elsewhere online, you may not have considered the many benefits of joining a genealogical society. Societies range in size from a few dozen to thousands of members, and typically have a focus. That focus could be based in geography, surname, nationality, or ethnic group. Automatically, membership will link you to others who have a similar research focus. Here’s several reasons why you should consider society membership as an important part of your genealogical toolkit.
Having the opportunity to work with others who are also doing the same kind of research aids all involved. Newer members can find people willing to answer questions about records or particular research problems. Some members may be willing to do research for a fee, or provide translation services if you are researching immigrant ancestors. Knowing someone is researching the same surname or geographical area as you are can help narrow down the pool of DNA matches, if both parties have tested. And it is always helpful to have another genealogist to help brainstorm ideas about next steps to take. Many groups make use of social media to post and share information, including family pictures, Bible records, scans of documents, and more. The networking aspect of genealogical societies can be especially helpful if you do not live in the location where you need to do your research.
2) Conferences, Workshops, Meetings
Most societies have regular meetings. It might be a large once-a-year multi-day conference, like the National Genealogical Society’s Conference in the States or it could be a monthly gathering of a county genealogical society. Topics might include instruction in navigating specific kinds of records, local historical events (like a history of epidemics), or members’ presentations about their ancestors and research. Some societies may host outside speakers, including professional genealogists, representatives from research institutions, or a history professor from a nearby college. Other societies may host webinars, chats, live-stream events, or other educational opportunities allowing members to still participate, even if they live far away.
3) Journals & Publications
One of my favorite things about belonging to genealogical organizations are their publications. There are still many records that remain accessible only on-site at a research institution. Or, even if digital copies are available online, they may not be fully indexed. Local genealogical societies have been publishing and indexing these records for decades, and the explosion of digital resources has not made this effort obsolete. In addition, members write up their research findings, abstract small country newspapers, republish old cemetery records compiled in the early 20th century, when headstones may have been more legible, and much more.
State-wide genealogical societies likewise make accessible many resources, but have the added benefit of providing data from across the state, potentially helping to find those mobile ancestors who seemed to have just “disappeared” when they moved to another county. Similarly, these publications may also provide guidance to records in state archives, especially such important records as state censuses. They may highlight underutilized sources, or may make suggestions on ways to navigate research in “burned counties.”
In addition to journals, some genealogical societies also publish books. These might be abstracts or transcriptions of records, a history of the county, or compiled family histories submitted by members. Larger societies may also publish research aids and guides, such as the massive New York Family History Guide and Gazetteer produced by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society.
Some organizations have their own libraries, made available to members. One of the largest of these is the New England Genealogical and Historical Society’s library in Boston. Free to members, non-members must pay a fee for access. But even smaller groups may have a library, sometimes available as a special room or collection within a public library, for example.
Many societies have special databases accessible to members only, or offer discounts to commercial genealogical services. Some sell digitized records or back issues of their journals. Members may receive a designated number of hours of research assistance before paying a fee, or be granted a discount on certain services, publications, research trips, tours, or other activities. Read the details about membership benefits for the individual society in question to learn more about their offerings.
How to Find a Society?
One place to begin is the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ (FGS) website. There, you can see a list of over 200 member organizations, including the Harmon Family Genealogists, the Historical Foundation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Germanic Genealogy Society, the Genealogy Society of Southern Illinois, and the Fresno County Genealogical Society, to provide just a sampling. It’s important to remember, however, that not all societies are members of FGS, and therefore their list is not comprehensive. Cyndi’s List is always a great place to look; you can browse the Surnames, Family Associations, and Family Newsletters section, or the section of Societies and Groups. Of course, using a search engine for your subject of interest also works.
As the holidays and a new year approaches, this is a good time to consider joining or asking for membership in a society as a gift. You may be surprised how much you can gain from the experience.
Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at www.lindabarnickel.com.