Warning: This article contains personal opinions.
I often hear reports that genealogy societies are shrinking. The numbers of members reportedly are falling annually; and therefore, budgets also are constantly shrinking. Attendance at some of the long-established national conferences also is declining. The reasons given vary although "competition from the Internet" seems to be the most common explanation offered.
It was with pleasant surprise that I read this week that heritage societies are doing the opposite: they are growing comfortably.
First of all, perhaps a bit of definition is in order. A genealogy society typically covers a geographic area. It may serve people who live in a particular county or state, or it may serve those who have ancestry from a particular area. Many do both. For instance, the New Hampshire Genealogical Society holds seminars and other events within the state for people who can travel to attend these in-person meetings. The topics typically are a blend of New Hampshire-related ancestry and a wide variety of other topics. The same society also publishes journals and books about various topics related to New Hampshire ancestry, of interest to local members as well as to those who live afar but have New Hampshire roots.
In contrast, heritage societies (or lineage societies) usually are focused on serving the descendants of those who participated in one event or lived in one area in past years. Examples of heritage societies include the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), an organization with membership open to any woman who can trace her ancestry to at least one Revolutionary Patriot. The Sons of the American Revolution is a somewhat similar society for men. The Mayflower Society is for descendants of the original passengers on that ship in 1620. The National Society of Daughters of the British Empire in U.S.A. is for women residing in the U.S. who are of British or British Commonwealth heritage by birth, naturalization, or proven ancestry. There are many, many other heritage organizations. See http://www.cyndislist.com/soc-lineage.htm for a list.
Jacqueline L. Urgo of the Knight Ridder Newspapers has written an article that ignores genealogy societies but paints a glowing picture of heritage societies' membership. She writes that the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Mayflower Society, and other heritage societies are growing in membership, primarily because they are shedding their old images as elitist organizations and are now appealing to mainstream Americans.
Urgo reports that the Mayflower Society - which has been around since 1897 and invites people to join who can trace their lineage back to the Pilgrims - saw its membership decline for many years but now has seen an increase in membership every year for the last eight. In short, the organization's membership has grown as the popularity of the Internet has exploded. Membership has grown from 26,600 in 1997 to a peak of about 30,000 today.
The New Jersey and Pennsylvania chapters of that organization for years had experienced declines but now have now seen increases in the last two years.
The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) reports increases of as much as 10 percent annually in various states over the last five years, with a total membership of 170,000 members worldwide at the end of 2005. In New York City, DAR chapters have formed that cater exclusively to working women. In Florida, chapters have sprung up everywhere from college campuses to retirement communities. One chapter has seen membership increase from 35 members five years ago to more than 125 this year.
What is the reason for this increase in membership? Again, the stated reasons vary widely. However, the most-often mentioned reason for growth is publicity on the Internet, exactly the same reason most often given for the decline of genealogy societies! The article quotes Alice Teal, editor of the national Mayflower Society Quarterly, as saying that the Mayflower Society's New Jersey chapter has grown " exponentially with the growth of the Internet."
So, why do heritage societies achieve growth from the same service that reportedly is the cause of genealogy societies' shrinkage? My crystal ball probably isn't any clearer than anyone else's. However, I suspect that the Internet is NOT the cause of any society's decline. I believe that this is simply a convenient scapegoat, used by people who do not take the time or energy to look harder for the real causes.
The article by Jacqueline L. Urgo focuses on two explanations for the growth of heritage organizations:
- Publicity generated on the Internet at very low costs to the organizations.
- A shift in focus by the societies. Many of these organizations are now recruiting typical Americans: working class people, those who live in mobile homes, farmers' wives, senior citizens, college students, and those of every race and creed.
Perhaps the genealogy societies and others who are seeing shrinkage in membership numbers should study the successes of other organizations and make similar adjustments.
You can read Jacqueline L. Urgo's interesting article at http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/news/nation/13489185.htm