When A Society Dies

Last week I had to perform what turned out to be a very uncomfortable and somewhat sad task — dissolve a genealogical society. As one of the last officers of the Family Research Association of Mississippi, I, along with a small group of others who constituted the last “Board”, voted unanimously to dissolve this association by closing the bank account, transferring the funds to a similar, non-profit society and not renewing the post office box rental. As as organization, there have been no meetings for two years. We all just stopped attending. Ironically, our final act as concerned Board members was completed completely via email and text. For me the experience put an exclamation point to the fact that genealogy research is not what it once was; not even five years ago.

What are the further implications of this quiet passing of FRA as we affectionately called it? In July 2016, Donna Cox Baker, host of The Golden Egg Genealogist, wrote about this subject in a blog entitled “The Genealogical Society: Revise or Demise?” She posits great points as to why genealogical societies are not what they once were, including genealogists of today looking and living very differently from genealogists of ‘yesterday’. We could spend days talking about those differences. Classic example — this week as I have worked on the creation of the website where this post will live, I was adding the history of the society and four of the first five members were noted by their married names. I know their husbands’ names, but not theirs. Different time, very different way of doing things.

So, what have I learned from handling the final disposition of a genealogical association and researching how common this is? I have come to better understand my own feet-dragging when a society meeting rolls around. I am busy. I do much of my genealogy research from the comfort of my living room, in my pajamas, fighting my cats for use of my laptop. And that could be at 2:00 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon or 2:00 a.m. on a Thursday. Or I am on a research trip or at a conference, trying to absorb and plan. I don’t need society membership to do any of that. Or do I?

Groups like the Federation of Genealogical Societies and the National Genealogical Society and several others exist, in part, to help societies grow and thrive. Why do they do that? There are several reasons for what they do, including preservation of records, establishment and maintenance of standards in research, educating an upcoming generation and late joiners to the researching party. All those things take people physically doing something to preserve records, do research in such a way that findings have merit, and teach those coming along after us. That takes being present, even if it means some of that presence is done via a Zoom meeting or webinars (sometimes watched at 2:00 a.m., in your pajamas, fighting cats for use of the laptop) or developing interactive, dynamic websites so that people can make the best use of their time in finding information and meetings to attend.

However, I think the biggest plus to helping societies thrive is the network a person develops by active membership in a genealogical society and in the educational process. People sharing what they know, how they know it, who they know (and to whom they are related) has created for me a real treasure trove of knowledge, experience and opportunities that has significantly enhanced my love for genealogy. In a world where people are increasingly disconnected, looking at small screens and conversing non-verbally, time spent in a genealogical society, actively contributing to the mission of that society can be a wonderful research blessing for a genealogist.

Farewell to the Family Research Association of Mississippi! My time spent there helped me be a better researcher, find some cousins, make friends that I still associate with, and recognize the importance of gathering, even in this digital age.

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