Genealogy 101: Genealogy Societies

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega describes some of the many benefits to joining a genealogy society. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

The first genealogy society in the United States was the New England Historic Genealogical Society, founded in 1845.

An article about the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Berkshire County Whig newspaper article 15 June 1848
Berkshire County Whig (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), 15 June 1848, page 4

Today, genealogy societies meet throughout the United States – both in person and virtually. Genealogy societies have a lot to offer family historians, whether it is a small community society or a larger one that serves an entire state.

All societies share the love of genealogy, but they differ in the membership benefits they provide. Why should you join a genealogy society? It can seem like the need for a society membership isn’t as vital as it was pre-Internet, but nothing could be further from the truth. Whether you join a genealogy society near you or one that serves the city your ancestor called home, the following are just some of the reasons to consider joining.

Institutional Memory

One of the biggest benefits of joining a genealogy society is its members. Society members may range from those who work as professional genealogists, to those who have researched for decades, to even those who’ve lived in the area of the society for generations. This knowledge can benefit you as you seek answers to your family history questions. Utilize society meetings and networking opportunities to learn more from other members.

Research Assistance

Societies often provide discounted or free research assistance to members inquiring about local records, or asking for look-ups in the society’s collection. The benefit of joining a society where your ancestor lived can be the research help it provides in an area that you may be unable to visit.

Educational Meetings

The most familiar society benefit is the regular general meetings a society sponsors. Typically, these meetings include an educational program provided by a member or a genealogy lecturer on a topic that can assist you in your research. While these are held at a local meeting place, it is possible that the society has a virtual chapter that provides meetings to members via the Internet.

An article about a genealogy society, Register-Republic newspaper article 20 October 1934
Register-Republic (Rockford, Illinois), 20 October 1934, page 5

Interest Groups

What are you interested in? Are you passionate about DNA testing? Do you have dreams of publishing your family history? Are you focused on researching in a specific country? Larger societies may offer additional meetings outside of the general monthly meeting. These Special Interest Groups (SIG for short) provide interested members the time to study and learn about a specific aspect of genealogy.

Library Access

Does your local genealogy society have a book collection? Some societies have book collections that include only important reference books, while others have collections that include thousands of items housed at a local public library or their own building. Don’t make the mistake of thinking a small society collection will pale in comparison to the collection of a larger society serving an entire state. I’ve seen some smaller societies have collections that rival the larger societies because of the generosity of its members. Are you a member of a society in another state? Consider contacting them about research assistance and possible look-ups. Sometimes these services are discounted for members.

Special Access

Membership has its benefits, and one such benefit of societal membership may be free or discounted access to subscription websites. In some cases, the society may have its own database of local historical or genealogical information that is available to members only. Make sure to check out the society’s membership page on its website to see if it has such benefits.

Discounts

Like other types of memberships, benefits may also include discounts to conferences, seminars, trips or other activities the society is involved in.

An article about a genealogy society, State Times Advocate newspaper article 2 January 1983
State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 2 January 1983, page 143

Publications

Society publications may include a monthly printed or emailed newsletter, a magazine, or journal. In some cases, societies may do a combination of all of the above at alternating intervals. A newsletter might provide society business, like meeting times or news, while a publication like a magazine may include articles about research methodology or case studies written by members. In the case of larger societies like the National Genealogical Society or New England Historic Genealogical Society, they produce a magazine and a more scholarly journal as well as informational emails.

Research Excursions

Wish you could go to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, or maybe Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to do research? Would you like to do research at a genealogical library but don’t want to go alone? Many societies coordinate excursions to research libraries for their members. Members get discounts on travel and accommodations, and in some cases can get help with their research from experts. Traveling with other society members is a great way to learn more about research in general, and research in a new-to-you location.

Community

Let’s face it, not everyone in your family is thrilled listening to your latest research finds. (I have family members who don’t even like genealogy, can you imagine?) That’s why it’s always nice to have a group that shares your interest in family history research. Joining a society gives you that. Whether it’s ham radio, gardening, or genealogy, joining a society helps you feel like you’re in a place where you belong.

An article about genealogy, Wichita Eagle newspaper article 12 June 1969
Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kansas), 12 June 1969, page 35

Genealogy societies have come a long way since 1845. Today’s society offers members assistance and education with the latest technology and genetic breakthroughs in tracing their family tree. Ready to join a genealogy society? There are many to choose from. To find a local society or one in your ancestor’s hometown, Google the name of the city and the phrase “genealogy society” or “genealogical society.” Don’t forget about the benefits of a larger society like the National Genealogical Society or New England Historic Genealogical Society.

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