06 March 2010

Doin' Things Right at the Southern California Genealogical Society

For an organization that came *thisclose* to going the way of the Polaroid and the typewriter, the Southern California Genealogical Society is thriving. Its membership has grown steadily over the past few years, and the Society has earned the reputation of being an innovative and progressive organization. How did it come about? It took a major transformation in attitudes about the Internet, and it didn’t come easy.

Throughout its first three decades, the SCGS library had a steady stream of patrons coming into the library to use the valuable collection of materials from across the US, Canada, Germany, and England. In the early ‘90s, the library was hit with a demographic double-whammy. Its more senior members who were accustomed to traditional research came into the library less often, either due to health issues or a diminished interest in researching. At the same time, online research was becoming more popular for Internet-savvy members. The chairs remained empty, the books remained shelved, and membership declined.

It Was the Internet’s Fault. The Internet Was Bad. Bad, Bad Internet.

Fortunately, the Society had some forward-looking leaders who embraced the opportunity instead of bemoaning the threat. A couple of patron computers were added, and then a couple more. Database subscriptions were added for in-library use, and the library began to offer a wide variety of valuable resources: online databases as well as maps, books, indexes, manuscript files, periodicals, gazetteers, microfilm, microfiche, etc. The Society’s website was updated and became an asset, and e-commerce provided a new way to bring revenue into the organization.

Part of the evolution contributing to the Society’s success was a fundamental change in the structure of its annual fundraiser, the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree. For years, the Jamboree was designed as an expo, a place to shop for books, guides, indexes, charts, and other products used by genealogists. It was an all-in-one shopping mall that had a few classes that were repeated throughout the weekend. It was very successful and the Jamboree team did an excellent job.

With the growth of the online marketplace, however, booksellers realized they didn’t need to drag crates of books to Southern California in order to sell them. It became challenging to get exhibitors, particularly book vendors, to attend. Genealogy software began to replace hand-written family group sheets and pedigree charts, and shoppers didn’t need to wait a whole year to buy their goodies. They could order them online and have them in a few days. Toss in some problems caused by a change in venue, and shadows were falling over the event. The design of Jamboree needed to change.

It did change – just in the nick of time. If the old model had continued, Jamboree would be nothing more than a “remember when…” Instead, it adapted to the changing needs of genealogists. It became a conference with an exhibit area, instead of the other way around. It became a place to network with others and to celebrate the thrill of solving an ancestral puzzle. It featured stuff to learn instead of stuff to buy.  The crowds returned, and Jamboree has grown in just a three years to be the largest American conference produced by a single genealogical society.

Jamboree is a great event itself, but it also serves as a motivator for other functional areas of SCGS. You’ll hear, time and time again, that “We want to get this done in time for Jamboree.” Whether it’s producing a new marriage index, or installing new microfilm reader-printer equipment, updating the online catalog, revising brochures for the various interest groups, or even getting the Library curtains washed, Jamboree provides a concrete deadline. Things just seem to get done in time for Jamboree and the entire organization benefits.

SCGS is taking its first wobbly, tentative steps into providing educational content through webinars. The first free webinar will be held Saturday, March 27, with George Morgan leading a session on “How to Get the Most out of a Genealogy Conference.”

None of this evolution could have been possible without the foresight, dedication, leadership, and thousands of hours of time contributed by the librarians, indexers, back-room staff, and other volunteers of the Southern California Genealogical Society. The Society has no paid staff; it is managed entirely by volunteers.  No words of gratitude can come close to expressing thanks for the willing participation of these members.

SCGS has embraced social networking as a way to build involvement, communicate with members and potential members, and to market its various programs, including Jamboree.  Blogs and tweets and Facebook posts have brought increased exposure and we are reaching more members and potential members than ever before.  We are fortunate to have the support and personal relationships that have developed within the geneablogging community, and in that way, everyone who reads this post is contributing to the continued health of the Southern California Genealogical Society. For that, we thank you.

Adapt. Evolve. Change.

And thank you, Good, Good Internet!

This post is being submitted to the inaugural edition of  "Carnival of Genealogical Societies."
The opinions expressed in this post are my own.
Paula Hinkel

1 comment:

  1. Paula,
    I was so delighted to come across your "Doin Things Right..." post. It is exactly what we are facing in our small county genealogical society. This is the discussion which we need to be having even if it is more comfortable to keep on doing things like we've always done them and struggling with membership decline and wondering why we aren't attracting younger members. Your posting of this is going to help us get taking about where we go from here.