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Will genealogy societies always just be there? Not necessarily
May 08, 2015
By David Pike, President of Family History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador

Genealogists are well aware that family history and genealogical societies are valuable sources of information and expertise that we can draw upon while pursuing our own individual research. Unfortunately it is also often the case that people are not well acquainted with the struggles faced by genealogical societies. Occasionally accompanying this situation is that some people seem to assume that these societies will always just be there, not necessarily realising that the societies rely upon the generosity of members and donors merely to exist, let alone to thrive.

Having served as the President of the Family History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador since 2013, I want to share some of the challenges that we face, along with putting out a call for help.

To put one of these matters into a larger context, blogger Susan Petersen recently wrote an Open Letter to Genealogical Societies in which she listed seven recommendations. Number five on her list was the need for fresh blood. She seemed to think that societies are reluctant to embrace newcomers to their Boards. Maybe some are, but in my experience the opposite is the case: FHSNL has been eager to bring new talent to its Board, but sadly we have not been inundated with people wanting to serve. Rather, we have had vacant positions for many years, despite regular calls for people who might be interested in serving to step forward and let their interest be known.

An analogy that I sometimes use is that even the best of ships needs to have a crew if it is to sail without foundering. Not only is it important for there to be enough people to share the duties of running a society, but it is healthy for there to be multiple voices and perspectives around the Board table. Not having enough Board members means that those who do serve may be overburdened with responsibilities, that new initiatives may not be undertaken, and quite possibly that existing activities may be scaled back for want of continued leadership.

Another of Susan Petersen's recommendations is that societies stop hoarding money, and instead put it to use for advancing genealogy. I don't know what societies she is speaking about here, but I know it isn't mine. Earlier this year the Family History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador was forced to lay off its sole employee (a part-time office manager who had been working two days per week). We did this as a cost-saving measure because, quite frankly, were we to take no action then our cash reserves would have been exhausted by the end of the year and we would be facing insolvency. Even after taking this action we are predicting a substantial deficit, largely due to the $20,000 per year that we pay to rent space that I will humbly say is too small for our needs (and I shudder to think of what we might have to cull from our collection should some members suddenly donate to us the large genealogical collections that they've painstakingly developed over their lifetimes).

FHSNL was granted Registered Charity status by the Canada Revenue Agency in 2013. Throughout the whole of 2014, when we were trumpeting our new status, we took in a total of $1377 in donations. While we are grateful for this support, it isn't yet enough to save us from financial precariousness. Our primary sources of revenue remain the membership fees paid by our approximately 400 members (many of whom live outside of the province), a grant from our provincial government's tourism and culture department, and support from the Canada Summer Jobs programme that we use to hire a summer student each year (that is, when we have a Board member who is available to train and supervise the student).

This post is beginning to sound too much like a lament, so let me now convey some of the good things that we have been doing and working towards. Since the founding of our society 31 years ago our core activities have included the publication of a quarterly journal and hosting a public lecture series. For the lectures, scheduled once per month (except in December and in the summer), we invite speakers to deliver talks on a variety of topics of interest to genealogists and family historians. For the past 4 years we have been recording these lectures and putting them onto our website where we now have more than two dozen lectures archived. We have been increasingly embracing opportunities provided by the internet: also on our website can be found a discussion forum (with topics spanning a spectrum of genealogical matters), digitsed copies of every issue of our quarterly journal as well as copies of about 80 linear feet of headstone inscription records that we collected with the aid of volunteers and summer students several years ago. Currently we are building an online database of birth records from the province; this database now boasts over 43,000 records in it and is growing daily.

We also operate a reference library and research centre, which is currently open to the public one morning per week, where books, church records, census records, voters' lists, and a large number of family histories that have been donated to us can be consulted.

There are many other initiatives that we would like to pursue, such as expanding the holdings of our library and extending its operating hours, increasing our collection of family histories, as well as indexing and putting online additional information from parish records, census records, and other historical documents that help to tell the history of the people of our province. But to fulfill our mission we need help in the form of additional volunteers and also in the form of money.

In terms of seeking volunteers, the society's AGM is coming up on May 26th, at which time nominations to fill vacancies on our Board will once again be called for. Members can also volunteer in other capacities too, such as by helping to build our online database of birth records (indeed, this is how several of our out-of-province members are volunteering their time).

In terms of money, there are a few ways in which to help, the most obvious of which is to pay the membership fee to join the society. FHSNL prices its membership at $42 per year, which provides full access to the resources on our website. As I mentioned earlier, FHSNL is a Registered Charity, and as such we are able to issue income tax receipts for donations. A few months ago we set up a fundraising campaign at FundRazr, which issues tax receipts automatically, thereby saving us from having to do so manually.

I understand that this post will reach some people whose genealogical background provides no cause for them to join or contribute to FHSNL specifically, in which case I will instead offer encouragement that you seek out ways in which to support those societies that are relevant to your research and which may be facing struggles of their own. Please also consider sharing this post with people who you think might be interested.

And lastly, thank-you for the time you've taken to read this message.

David Pike, President of Family History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador
08 May 2015

Photo credit: Cape Spear, St Johns, Newfoundland, Canada. ©John Goodger, 2010. Image created for the CD edition of the book A History of Newfoundland by Judge D.W. Prowse

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