How to Give Back to Genealogy

Part of the reason I became involved in the WordPress Community in 2003 was to give back. WordPress is free, open source programming that creates a web platform upon which I stand to publish. It’s free. Free as in costs-me-nothing but some time and energy. With all this free and freedom around, I, like millions of others, wanted to give something back, pay our dues for this amazing program.

So I volunteered.

I poked and prodded around the newly forming WordPress Community, hooking up on the live chat boards, helping answer questions around the web, and eventually in the WordPress Support Forums. Technical documentation was just beginning to find a home in 2004 with the WordPress Codex, our wiki, and it was a mess. I poured through the pages one by one as they were added slowly from other sources, then one day couldn’t resist hitting the edit button because I was so tired of seeing the word separate misspelled. My life would never be the same.

For over 10 years I was a senior editor of the WordPress Codex, writing, editing, and corralling others to volunteer their contributions to make the Codex the single most complete guide and manual for WordPress users. That wasn’t in my plan but it became part of my gift back to WordPress.

As I look at my years in genealogy, first as a passionate hobbyist, now moving into becoming a professional, I look at how I’ve given back to that community as well, and how much that giving paid off in the long run. Let’s explore opportunities for you to do the same.

Join a Genealogy or Historical Society

Michigan Genealogical Council Booth Sign Boards - FGS 2017Nothing says love and support than a check in the form of a donation and/or membership in a genealogy or historical society. You are giving back to keep alive the education and preservation of the heritage and culture of our ancestors.

Join a local group, or one associated with your genealogy location research or group such as a religious or cultural historical society. Even becoming a member of a local or far-off group helps increase their membership numbers and income. Be sure and ask for a digital copy of their newsletter rather than printed and mailed version to help them save even more money.

Participate. Don’t just join. Give back by your presence at regular meetings, board meetings, and educational programs and special events. A warm body does much to warm the soul of a society, knowing people care enough to show up.

Then do more. Volunteer to help with an event or class. Join a committee. Throw in your name when the election committee comes calling.

When you discover you have a little extra at the end of the month, or you are reviewing your donations every year, consider donating to a genealogy society to ensure they keep doing their good work for so many on into the future. Or consider donating to a historical or genealogy society your research, records, photo albums, whatever historical artifacts and treasures that your family won’t want, won’t appreciate, or would support.

Do a Google search for the name of your community, town, county, or state, or maybe genealogical interest such as DNA, Daughters of the American Revolution, or Quakers, with the words society, group, or association.

Also try the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) for the US, and check the calendar at ConferenceKeeper, the schedule of genealogy and family history events and activities.

Attend Genealogy Workshops and Conferences

Conferences - Stillaguamish Northwest Genealogy Conference 2017 - photo by Lorelle VanFossenIt may not seem like you are giving back when you attend local and distant genealogy workshops and conferences, but you are helping. Your ticket and presence keeps the event alive and prospering. And more.

The events you attend also help direct future events by your enthusiasm and feedback. It supports educators, teachers, and experts in the field who attend and speak at these events, helping others to learn more about their specialty.

If you cannot attend, consider giving the gift of a ticket to a family history event or workshop to someone else to help them learn more about genealogy, especially family members new to family history research. Or donate the ticket price back to the sponsoring organization so they may offer scholarships and tickets to those in need, a generous way to share the wealth.

Check with local, state, and national (and international) genealogy societies and organizations for event dates, as well as ConferenceKeeper to find a workshop and conference near you.

Help Digitize

More traditional glass plate book and document scanner in use at RootsTech in FamilySearch booth.As digitization methods become more affordable, many historical and genealogy societies and groups are working hard to digitize their record. With recent fires of historical archives and government agencies, and the risk of more, the urgency to duplicate their precious inventory of books, papers, photographs, manuscripts, photo albums, etc., increases.

Volunteer to help with digitization. This could involve donating money, helping to write grant proposals, or hands on labor to assist with the process. You don’t have to have technical expertise to volunteer, but it helps if you do.

FamilySearch features a web page for Active Projects displaying where the non-profit family history company has scanners, cameras, and other archiving resources around the world working to preserve local historical records. Check with local Family History Libraries to see what projects they may have available. Many work with local agencies and archives to assist with digitization and indexing. Contact your local historical or genealogy group or society to find out what help they need to digitize their records. Also check libraries, state and national archives (some accept volunteer help), and local museums.

And consider volunteering with the Internet Archive. Their projects range from local to international and they need help at every level and expertise. Their work to conserve and preserve history through digitization by working with governments, archives, and local level groups helps protect human history into the future.

Index Records

Years ago, I’d visit a local Family History Center or library and volunteer to help index records. Today, you can volunteer to index records right from within your home or on your laptop or tablet from anywhere.

It isn’t just words you are asked to transcribe and index today. It is maps, photographs, and a wide variety of scanned records and materials. The British Library has a volunteer program for georeferencing and geotagging points on a map, allowing old maps to be just as valuable as new ones.

In Oregon where I live, Betty Winn (90) was honored recently for her volunteer work of 17 years indexing historical records of the Oregon State Archives. Trust me, Betty needs some volunteer company.

Indexing and other transcription volunteer projects can be found at your local library, museum, historical society, government offices, or archives. Check with your local genealogical or historical society for other local projects, too. Note that some institutions hold special events to encourage indexing and transcription during a specific set of dates and times such as the Worldwide FamilySearch Indexing Event. Here are some other suggestions and examples.

Hunt for Graves

Find A Grave and BillionGraves are eagerly looking for volunteers to help find graves, document them, and create memorial pages for the residents when possible.

Both services include grave sites and cemeteries from around the world, so this is a give-back you can do locally or as you travel researching your ancestors and walking in their footsteps. Mobile apps make the task even easier.

Both services also link up needs with those living in the local area where someone needs cemetery and tombstone information if it is lacking. When you register to volunteer, let them know if you are available to research for those living far away.

Heirloom Reunions

Museum - Wood Plane from Brashear collection and photos - Heinz Museum History Display - by Lorelle VanFossenAn article on Genealogy Gems mentioned heirloom reunions, finding artifacts and reuniting them with their owner’s descendants.

Once lost objects such as bibles, photographs, photo albums, scrapbooks, military dog tags, school yearbooks, and other heirlooms can be returned to descendants with some serious genealogical research. There are an increasing number of stories about such discoveries and reunions reported, and many are turning it into a hobby as part of their passion for family history research and detective work.

If you have found some heirloom artifacts, consider researching them or donating the items to those who reunite such items with their original owners, or their descendants. It’s a worthwhile gift of history, and may reunite families with precious memories as well as historical souvenirs.

Give DNA Tests

The price of DNA tests are dropping rapidly, especially with the many sale events recently. Buy several from one or more companies and give them to your elder family members. Then make their DNA test results matter.

While waiting for the DNA results, which can take weeks or months, start building the family tree in the service where you purchased the DNA kit. This will help match DNA results with your tree, improving the chances of finding matches when the test comes back.

Once the DNA test results are available, download them from the paid service and upload them to GEDmatch, GEDmatch Genesis (the “new” version of GEDmatch), Family Tree DNA, and DNA.Land, as well as the other services you’ve joined as a member such as MyHeritage and Ancestry.com.

By sharing DNA test results across a wider spectrum of databases, you not only increase your changes of finding relatives and connections, but you increase other people’s chances of the same success: finding you and your relatives.

The more we share our DNA data, the more the entire system improves. Through triangulation and just the increase in data points, the better the results and findings.

Give Time

Give of your time and skills as a family history researcher and help others. They may or may not be members of your local genealogical society. Reach out into the community.

Genealogists helping each other on laptop during FGS conference 2017 - photo by Lorelle VanFossenHelp your grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and other family members to understand and preserve their family history.

Talk to your friends. Help them get started.

Be patient. Be kind. Move at their speed. Help them with the technology, and with the step-by-step process of researching their family. The more people around you enthused about genealogy, the more you improve your support group and the more you help others protect their family histories.

Give Away

Books - Old Books - The Ancestory and Family History books - photo by Lorelle VanFossenI have always believed in giving without expectation of return, enjoying the process of giving rather than seeking other rewards. Consider all the ways you may give to genealogy.

  • Besides donating money, consider donating records, research, photo albums, photos, heirlooms, antiques, artifacts, and other historical artifacts to your local genealogy or historical society, or even the state or national organizations if they welcome such gifts.
  • Gift historical and genealogy books to local libraries.
  • Donate a basket or bag of family history research supplies or kits to your local family history group for special events.Donations - Gift bag Stillaguamish Genealogical Society bag with family history research tools - photo and gift by Lorelle VanFossen
  • Donate an Amazon.com or other bookstore or office supply chain gift card to your local family history group for event giveaways.
  • Donate a couple hours of your time as an assistant researcher at your family history library, local library, or historical society.
  • Have a blog or are part of an active social media group? Consider donating some of the above ideas to them as well.

Do Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness

Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) is a global volunteer organization committed to connect volunteers with genealogical acts of kindness around the world.

Volunteers make themselves available to do local research at least once a month in an act of kindness. They visit cemeteries and take photographs of tombstones, look up records in local government offices, churches, archives, and wherever the records might be found, and help as best they can to answer questions and inquiries.

Volunteers donate their time, but the research request person must pay for all expenses incurred in the research process such as copies, printing fees, postage, parking fees, etc. I’ve been asked to compensate the amazing genealogists who’ve helped me around the world with little more than a LinkedIn endorsement, following them on Facebook, or other non-monetary request as well as covering extraneous expenses through a PayPal payment, far less than I would have paid a professional genealogist. Not to say you shouldn’t, but this is among your options when researching beyond your geographic range and expertise.

Have an expertise in a geographical area or specialty? Live near a popular library, archive, or research region? Have some free time and want to help others? Consider volunteering to become a member of RAOGK and help others solve their genealogical questions.

Give Back as Much as You Can and More

I’ve long believed that the more you give the more you get back. I’ve experienced it repeatedly throughout my life, and often in the most surprising ways.

I give without expectation of return, the secret to true gift giving. I recommend you do the same. Gifts without strings are a beautiful thing.

Also give because of the learning experience. Those times helping with indexing, researching other people’s family tree, and sitting through presentations that I thought would be snores that ended up teaching me new things about this whole research process I’ve been banging my head against since I was a child. You never know where a lesson will come from.

I hope this inspires you to give. How do you give back to the genealogy industry and community? What do you wish you’d do more of when it comes to encouraging others?

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