THE PRESUMPTION OF GENEALOGICAL SOCIETIES
an editorial by Harry Turner
Paraphrased, Webster’s dictionary defines genealogy as the study of families and the lines of descent from their ancestors. For as long as people have had children, and their children have had children, others have studied these lines of descent. Some have published their findings. Others have provided commentaries on such genealogies. Presently, Oxford and a number of other English universities have in their possession pig-skinned manuscripts dating from as early as 300 A.D., chronicling King Alfred and other monarchs along the way. Though a tyrannical leader, Nero caused to have published a number of "genealogies" on some of the earliest emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. (It was not until much later that another author chronicled Nero’s tyranny and eventual suicide when others tried to depose him.)
Genealogy has come a long way since then. In early English history, very few had books. It just cost too much to produce the pig-skinned pages that were used. Frequently, centralized monasteries would contain the only 200 books of an entire parish, thus, the reason for the perpetuation of illiteracy. In the last hundred years, we have refined the technique a bit. The printing press was invented. Paper was developed. And, voilà, a genealogist on a modest income could afford to produce a thousand copies of his or her own family history. That was twenty years ago. Today, our media is even more advanced. The explosion of computers and the internet has seen the advent of such enterprises as Ancestry.com and RootsWeb’s novel subscriber lists. There is practically a computer in every home and several hundred genealogists subscribed to any one RootsWeb list at any given time. Get a computer, stay at home, and you can practically research any name or place of history around the globe. Far fetched? Not hardly.
Now, you can begin to understand the demise of genealogical societies in places like Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, or Truro, England, or even Madison County, New York. Genealogical meetings are more a social gathering where elderly patrons munch on cookies, sip milk, and talk about the latest housing development after John Smith at the end of town sold off his last two hundred acres. Sure, they talk about doing this and that. Sometimes they produce genuinely productive aids. Even here, the Mahoning County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society has produced several useful aids for local genealogists. Jocelyn Wilms and other members trudged around local cemeteries as long ago as 1988 producing their 1996 published cemetery records for the township of Austintown. And, here is the dilemma, the published work sits on shelves in the Youngstown Public Library and the Library of Congress. To retrieve it for someone’s use outside of the state, one must obtain it on inter-library loan. For a young, aspiring genealogist, this is a long and cumbersome process.
Computers and genealogy have their problems also. Not long ago, this writer satirized RootsWeb for their harsh admonishment of an elderly, handicapped subscriber from Florida. The woman had obtained copyrighted CD’s from the Cornwall Family History Society (purchased them) and emailed to other subscribers that she would do look ups. The list owner for that particular subscriber list first publicly admonished the woman for attempting copyright infringement and then promptly removed her from the list. Her handicap? She is legally blind, and genealogy was an enriching hobby.
Subscriber lists can be helpful, but genealogy websites are becoming a very useful resource. So many people have computers. More are jumping on webs every day. Optimally, genealogy societies should be attempting to get primary sources in the hands of those who most desire them. There is a tremendous demand out there for information. Enter this website. I was actually shocked at the almost immediate and poor reception from two members of the Mahoning Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society. One actually suggested that by calling this site the Mahoning Valley Genealogical Society, I was purposely misleading the public into thinking this site was affiliated with their chapter/the Ohio Genealogical Society. The other said the site was woefully lacking in information. Well, yes, the site is new.
I believe that the knee jerk reaction by these two members is quite comical and also very telling. Their comments show a sense of parochialism that is quite pervasive in genealogical societies throughout the U.S., Canada, and England. Societies become so attached to their products that they come to believe that they actually own the information contained therein. This also becomes a problem when one brings up the issue of copyright infringement. No genealogical society can copyright or own significant events in one’s life. Owners of subscriber lists frequently make this assumption, and sanction their subscribers for violating esoteric rules of etiquette along the aforesaid lines. Sometimes, too, the producers of major genealogical works allow their egos to get in the way. This is why many societies produce few works. Egos create a politically charged atmosphere; wherein, previously motivated genealogists just drop off the rolls of such a society. It just isn’t worth their time.
The presumption of genealogical societies must change. Today, the vast majority of the United States uses computer media. Therefore, societies should focus more on producing works that are compatible with such media. Books are nice; don’t get me wrong. However, for that genealogy buff in Mansfield or San Diego, California, I believe that those two members of the Mahoning County Chapter of the OGS should focus more on trying to get data to those people via the internet and less on criticizing the "woeful" inadequacies of this website.
Note: The President/Executive Officer of the Mahoning Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society is invited to write a counterpoint.