Genealogical Societies in the Time of the Pandemic

Originally posted on:
Facebook, The Genealogy Squad, 1 April 2020, “Genealogical Societies in the Time of Pandemic,” Jill Morelli, guest post.

I can brag to my husband about a new record set or a brick wall busted, but I “happy dance” alone! One of the major reasons I joined my local genealogical society is to enjoy the company of like minded individuals. It is fun to share our discoveries with genealogical buddies at the society meetings. But, what happens to the “place,” when the “place” can no longer be occupied?

We are told to stay home and our genealogical community can’t meet. Does our society no longer exist, because it doesn’t meet?

I am seeing some good coming out of this enforced isolation—societies are forced to embrace technology in ways they haven’t. Times like these are when urban planners plan, because they know things will turn and they want a plan in place when it does. This is the time when genealogical societies should be planning for the future, because we know things will change. The alternative is to put your society on hold until fall, and see if your members come back. Seattle Genealogical Society (SGS) is not waiting.

About five years ago, SGS tested incorporating some technological solutions to some of our programs and issues. We  came to this decision out of necessity—our annual budgets showed us spending more money than we were taking in, our membership had been dropping for years, and our volunteer base was aging. Sound familiar?

Under the pressure of budget problems those many years ago, the SGS Board and selected others  brainstormed ideas for increasing our income and decreasing our expenses. Every idea was put on the table. Some were implemented immediately, some were dropped and some resurrected themselves years later for re-consideration. (And, some were tried but didn’t work.)

Little did we know that by implementing those successful ideas we were positioning ourselves to be nimble in the time of the pandemic.

Here are some of our initiatives. Maybe some will work for you.

  • Embrace technology. SGS still accommodates those with no email by mailing a paper election ballot (we are down to just 25), and printing a few copies of our SGS Journal, but the assumption is we are going digital. SGS drastically cut the cost of the publication of our journal and mailings by going to an electronic system. Our bylaws had to change to allow electronic voting.
  • Our monthly Board meeting packets are now stored “in the cloud.” Nothing is emailed or mailed. While not an economic move, it saved human time in meeting preparation.
  • About five years ago we had a process audit and discovered that the committee couldn’t find our important documents! We found them, but it precipitated the concept of online storage. All our important papers and historical documents are in the cloud as well—insurance forms, tax forms, historical meeting notes. Even our first meeting minutes from 1923 are there! And they are all searchable using optical character recognition.
  • SGS started teaching one online course; we are up to three and hope to add a fourth soon. These have been a financial benefit to the society. While a fee is paid to the instructors and for expenses, most goes into the General Operating Fund. We would like this to expand.
  • We standardized our monthly member meetings at our facility with a program called Second Saturday. In the time of the coronavirus we are still meeting at the same time—just virtually. This was a free service then and continues. Standardization of the date was important to increase the attendance.
  • SGS communicates with the membership and our friends more frequently then we did a few years ago. Our free eNews!electronic newsletter is composed of happenings of SGS, genealogical tips and events around the Sound. We had a quarterly newsletter that was mailed to the membership. We now communicate with them a minimum of 2x/month, and even more during this sequestering. We have over 1000 individuals on the mailing list, and welcome you to join.
  • Seattle’s vehicular traffic is horrible and most people didn’t want to spend more time getting to and from a Board meeting than the Board meeting itself. We instituted an online option for board meetings. We have been able to seamlessly transition the entire Board to the online Board meeting.
  • Our website was antiquated and only one person knew how to update it. We tried to build one ourselves but that initiative “sagged under its own weight.” SGS paid for an off-the-shelf product for genealogical societies and has been satisfied. No one got all they wanted, but it is easy for our members and friends. The package included a membership and a library catalog component. We dropped our subscription to our stand-alone library package and ended up net zero on the cost for the website.
  • SGS became a FamilySearch affiliate a year ago and saw an uptick in visits to our library to use our computers (of course, now the library is closed). We think this will grow, post-personal lock down.
  • Our membership is growing, counter to trends for most societies.We are also seeing a younger audience at our seminars. I think it is because we have more virtual options and we are reaching out to them in new and different ways that fit with their schedules.
  • We continue to see usage of the books and access to the catalog of the society drop, yet we have one of our more active volunteer groups working tirelessly to catalog donations, and recommend purchases. While I have an increasing appreciation for the book collection, I wonder about its future.

After this is over, there will be a “new normal.” What it will be like, I don’t know, but it will reward the flexible. As we look to the future and as I step down from the presidency of SGS, here are some personal thoughts:

I believe some societies in our region are having problems, usually due to a lack of volunteers willing to assume leadership positions. This may result in some societies merging with others; some that disappear and some that decide to “hibernate”.

I believe that some people are “afraid” to assume leadership positions because they become positions for life—not healthy for any society. A graceful way out has to be provided by the society, not only to get new people on the Board, but to get new ideas percolating in the society. Sometimes “tough love” is the only way to do it.  If you have been in a single position for 10 years—quit! If the society wishes to survive it will. SGS has a three year graceful exit for all Board positions. It doesn’t always work, but it’s there.

If we are sincere about reaching out to younger members, we cannot hold our learning options (meetings, etc.) on Monday through Friday between 8-5.

If we want younger members on our Boards, we have to give them a virtual option.

Revisit your mission statement. You may find that it hinders you from looking forward or does not express the innovative society you are.

Keep it simple—the simpler the better. We know that for SGS to survive for the next 100 years we must focus on our volunteer’s ability to assume the responsibility of positions without a hitch.  There cannot be a huge learning curve upon takeover of any position and that includes operations, treasurer, membership, publications, etc.

It’s not all perfect at Seattle Genealogical Society, but we have balanced our budget, our membership is increasing and we have new volunteers in leadership positions. We look forward to our 100th anniversary in 2023 and are starting the planning now.

You may have members who are resistant to change, but you and other Board members know it is the right thing to do. See this as your opportunity.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last post: we are “sequestered in Seattle” but waiting for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan to show up!  I don’t know when this will be published and when it is this segment will be old.  I am working on a paper on Swedish emigrants, setting up for the next two Certification Discussion Group classes, figured out finally why a “behind a password” document was showing up on Google and cleaning out my desk drawers and my three-ring binders.



Verbose? Yes. So, fix it!

Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 7.19.10 AM.pngDo you examine each sentence to determine the value of every word? Each word has a “weight,” based on the fit of that word to meaning the author wishes to convey. You want words that convey  meaning; Words that are ambiguous or imperfect in their settings should be replaced. I should be far more vicious in my editing by looking for words that either 1.) don’t pull their weight or 2.) aren’t needed at all.

Let’s look at a few examples of my typical (bad) writing habits. Maybe you have these same habits?

Example #1: Too many words

“Blekinge County had an average rate of emigration per 1000 inhabitants of 8.2 individuals from 1881 to 1890, classifying it as a “medium” rate of emigration.”

Changed to:

“From 1880 to 1890, Blekinge County had an average rate of emigration per 1000 inhabitants of 8.2, a “medium” rate of emigration.”[2]

Two things happened: I removed “classifying it as.” They were unnecessary.  I also moved the year range to the front of the sentence, resulting in the modifying phrase, “a “medium” rate of emigration” adjacent to the number it was defining, “8.2.” This move made the number and its definition adjacent to each other and removed the intervening range of years, which would only confuse the reader. The word “had” is weak; I could exchange it for “exhibited,” but perhaps a more modest word is ok when you are presenting statistics. And that’s just one sentence!

Example #2: extraneous leading phrase

“I find that I include a lot of words I don’t need to.”

Changed to:

“I include many words I don’t need.”

The word “that” was the indicator. “I find that” was dropped as was the preposition at the end. I changed “a lot” for many–it just sounds better. Also, look for short qualifying phrases with little or no content, often followed by a comma, at the start of a sentence. “I think that,” or “I feel that.” These phrases equivocate your work and make your writing (and you) seem weaker to your reader. Incorporate the content into the sentence and eliminate the leading phrase.

Example #3: passive voice

“Between 1850 and 1900, there were 95 inhabitants anticipating emigration.”

changed to:

Between 1850 and1900, 95 inhabitants anticipated emigrating.

Whenever we can, we should change the sentence so there is an action verb instead of variations of “to be.” I find this hard with genealogy as there is no reasonable way to write the sentence any other way but “Fred was born on 22 September 1856.”

Example #4: weak action verb

It would be possible for an individual to leave the parish without getting a permit.

Change to:

It would be possible for an individual to leave the parish without obtaining a permit.

Somewhere on the spectrum of passive voice (bad) and terrific action verb (good), lies weak action verbs like “do” or “get.” Conduct a word search for all the “dos” and “gets” and test each with a more active verb.

Example #5: verbs that require a preposition

“Do you look at each sentence to determine the value of every word?

Changed to:

“Do you examine each sentence to determine the value of every word?”

“Look at” was exchanged with “examine.” While “look at” was probably ok, the word “examine” conveys a higher level of scrutiny and eliminated the pesky preposition.

These are just some of my bad habits, all taken from what I am writing now, including a first draft of this blog post! Scrutinize your writing. Perhaps hire a professional editor to look at some already published articles and give you a critique of the habits that occur over and over. What habits do you see and which ones are you trying to change?

This blog post was inspired by Melissa Johnson’s course at Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy this past January on “Technical Writing.” Thanks, Melissa.

Flatten the curve!


What I have done since the last post: As President of Seattle Genealogical Society, we have been active in re-defining ourselves in light of the coronavirus. This has taken a lot of work by many people. Check out our online activities at I also have (finally) had a break through on the paper I have been working on for over a month now on emigration from Sweden in the 1850-1900s. All data is now gathered and I am putting the article together; attended the Puget Sound-Association of Professional Genealogists meeting. We are going virtual! Yay!

[1] J. Howard Miller, “We Can Do It,” poster, National Archives, in public domain, c. 1942.
[2] The citation for this will be a reference to a table where I took all counties of Sweden, and calculated their rates of emigration, based on population and number of emigrants by county from the Swedish Statistika Centralbryån (National Central Bureau of Statistics) (SCB). The content of the table will be cited.



The Importance of Mistakes

Screen Shot 2020-03-17 at 11.50.45 AM.png
So many have told the story: after they submitted their portfolio, they looked at what they submitted and found errors. They then obsessed about them until they heard their results from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. [1]

But, those mistakes serve a purpose for all of us–submitters and wanna-be-submitters alike. They prove that perfection in a portfolio is NOT the standard by which the portfolios are judged. Thank goodness, or my portfolio would have hit the dustbin early.

The problem is when you review the sample portfolios at a conference or institute there is not enough time to identify those mistakes.  As a consequence, you leave that review thinking that the portfolio is perfect. The submitter knows their own work product has errors, but when you look at it–it looked perfect. Many decide to defer submission or not submit at all, because their portfolio would not be as perfect as those they had just reviewed.

And, so the myth begins—“my” portfolio had errors but “yours” didn’t; you received the credential and I won’t; I won’t submit because mine won’t be perfect; I will submit but be found wanting because of “all of my errors”. The obsessing begins while we wait.

Let me be clear, all portfolios have errors. And it’s true, if you make enough and they are bad enough mistakes, you won’t receive the credential.  But, some mistakes are more egregious than others. But, we most often seem to fuss over a comma here, a misspelling there, a goofed up citation here.

If each element of the portfolio is testing a skill, then it behooves us to not make a mistake on that skill. For example, if you link the wrong person to the wrong parent in your KDP–that’s a big deal.  Or, if you fail to address another same named individual in your Case Study, that will draw the ire of the judges. Does that mean you are out of the running?—no. The judges look at the totality of the submission. Here are some examples of mistakes made:

Research Report: I referred to the wrong person a couple of times in my RR. Of course, the judges caught the problem, because that section didn’t make sense.   I still received the credential.

KDP: I goofed on my numbering system and fussed about it. In the end, the judges didn’t seem to have even noticed it, but instead mentioned that I din’t have to follow such an elaborate numbering system at all because I had chosen “narrative lineage.” I still received the credential.

KDP: “I found a city directory for a Charles Olin in San Fransisco in 1912. The reviewer followed that through and said it was a different Charles Olin. Fortunately, I had enough other evidence in the case study about Charles Olin.”[3] Mary Roddy still received the credential.

Mary also, right before submission, found she had put the geographic place of interest on the wrong Great Lake.  It wasn’t Lake Erie; it was Lake Ontario![4] She changed it before submittal and received the credential.

Perfection is not the standard, but, that doesn’t give you a license to be sloppy.  Do your best work, so you can be proud of what you submit. Then read the judge’s comments and learn from them. Think of it this way– if you get very few comments from the judges, you probably had a very good portfolio, but you haven’t learned much from the judges’ comments.  Comments by judges or journal peer reviewers force us to look at our writing more closely.

That’s a good thing.

Should your portfolio not earn the credential, think about how much you learned by just doing the portfolio in the first place! Then, try again.

Mistakes are an important part of the learning process. Watch a toddler learn to walk or watch me ski, if you don’t believe me.

If you want to know more: See the article by Alison Hare, CG at “Skillbuilding: A Look at BCG’s Evaluation System.” (second row, first article)

Happy hunting,


PS: I do not speak for BCG. Your experience may be different. This blog is my experience or those experiences of others who have elected to share them with me, and for that I am eternally grateful.  YMMV.

What I have done since the last blog post: not much—pet the cat, make my hubby’s birthday cake, reviewed the emigrants from Björskog parish from 1850-1880 (only 20 more years to go!), etc.

[1] A “portfolio” is a 6 part submission to the Board for Certification of Genealogists to be reviewed by three judges. The portfolio is judged based on rubrics. If the portfolio is adequate, the submitter receives the credential of Certified Genealogist.
[2] Facebook, Photo by Mary Roddy, 17 March 2020, Used with permission.
[3] Mary Roddy, Personal Message to Jill Morelli, 17 March 2020.
[4] Ibid.



Conducting Your Own Context Study

Swedish emigrationI have been working on a paper that I tentatively had called “Baptist Emigration from Hishult Parish, Sweden in the 19th Century.” This is my own research. How does one go about conducting your own study. I had questions: Were there other Baptists in the parish? Did all of them emigrate?  When did they emigrate–earlier or later than the general population?

I was interested in this topic because my ancestors were ardent Baptists from Hishult in a Lutheran country. I could find some documentation on Baptists in Sweden but I couldn’t find anything about the Baptists in “my” parish. I decided to conduct my own study.

I floundered around for a while and now the working title is “An Investigation of the Emigration Patterns of Three Parishes in Sweden in the 19th Century.” Quite a change from the initial focus.

I thought I would share some of my problems and successes with this project so you, too, could conduct your own contextual study if needed; you would have a rough idea of the steps involved in doing so; and you would understand some of the issues you might face.

  1. Be inquisitive! You might never embark on conducting your own study if you are not inquisitive in the first place. Genealogists by nature should be very interested in finding out whether our ancestors were unique or were they “going with the flow.”
  2. Devise a good research question. What question(s) are you trying to answer? As you can see from the two working titles of the paper, my research focus has changed, from Baptists to emigrants, from one parish to three. You might even have a hypothesis, but be careful.  You do not want to research with an assumption of the answer–confirmation bias.
  3.  Conduct a literature search–a topical search. You need to know what already has been published on or about your topic before you start.  You may find that you do not need to conduct the study or you may find there is very little written about your topic. JSTOR is your friend. JSTOR compiles articles written by academics about topics we are interested in.[1] I have found articles in JSTOR on literacy in Sweden in the 1800s; bankruptcy of Iowa banks in the 1930s; and women in mental institutions in the 19th century. You may have to go to an academic library to access this database.
  4. Be flexible. When I decided to add two more parishes to the project, I felt I would get a broader picture of the situation at a parish level. But when I identified there are no Baptists in the other two parishes, the impact of the paper was diminished if I continued with a focus on Baptists. I had two choices–I could look for other parishes with Baptists or change my focus. I took the easy way out. There are over 2500 parishes in Sweden and the concept of identifying those with Baptists AND finding parishes that were similar to Hishult was daunting. I had the luxury of changing the focus. You might not have that luxury.
  5. Decide what data you need and where to find it. I was lucky to have found the Swedish Statistika Centralbryån (National Central Bureau of Statistics or SCB), which had population statistics in the 1800s for Sweden and for the counties.[2] I found it by reading a book written in 1976 of emigration to America from Sweden, and it referenced the source of their data as the SCB.[3] (see graph above of the rate of emigration/1000 residents of Sweden, between 1850-1900 [4])
  6. Conduct a beta test on a small scale to see what you find. I did this on Hishult before adding the other two parishes. I found that I had to do most of my own data collection at the parish level and I wanted to ask the question “How does my parish compare with the nation and the county?” To do that it would be necessary to compare Sweden’s numbers with the county’s numbers with the parish’s numbers.  The study expanded.
  7. Be flexible–again. Knowing that the county of Halland, within which Hishult lies, had a high rate of emigration, I asked another research question, “How does Hishult compare with a similar parish in low and medium rate counties?” The study expanded again.
  8. Decide what is the best way to display your data. Tables? charts? Narrative? Narrative is rarely the way to show numbers over time and so I knew that I would ned to use Excel and have Excel make the graphs. I didn’t know how to make them read right and clearly illustrate my points—so I learned. One graph was worthless because the numbers were so small, so I switched it to a table. I also wanted to know where the Hishult Baptists who emigrated were located, so I added two maps.
  9. Keep writing! As you put your concepts down you may find your focus may change–again.  It’s alright.
  10. Don’t stop until you are finished and you aren’t done until it is published. I am hoping to present the findings of this paper at the SLIG Colloquium 2021 and if possible, find a journal that would publish it.

I hope that his has been inspiring or at least interesting to you. I will keep you posted on my progress.

I have also found that I miss blogging. Hopefully, you will hear from me more often–or at least more often during this virus lockdown.

Happy Hunting,


What I have done since my last blog post: two more of the conferences I was going to speak at are cancelled for this year; I am President of Seattle Genealogical Society and we are deciding, on a two week rolling schedule, what to cancel next and how to bring online content to our members; and I continue to count emigrants and population in parish #3, Björskog in Västmanland, the county in the low category of emigration.

[1] JSTOR, There is some free digital content. Look there first.
[2] Statistika Centralbryån (National Central Bureau of Statistics) (SCB), “Historisk Statistik för Sverige, Del. 1 Befolkning, Andra upplagan, 1720-1967 (Historical Statistics for Sweden, Part 1: Population, second edition).”  If you are interested in accessing this Swedish historical data (pre-1960) you can find it here:ör%20Sverige%201700-1900-tal/Del1-Befolkning-1720-1967.pdf
[3] Harald Runblom and Hans Norman, editors. From Sweden to American: A History of the Migration. A collective work of the Uppsala Migration Research Project. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976.
[4] SCB: For population: “Tab. 2Folkmängden dem 31 December 1749-1855,” p. 44; For emigration: “Tab. 43. Ut- och invandrare samt omflyttningsresultat 1851-1908,” p. 120.

KDP: “Story” or Biographical Narrative?

The KDP: Is it a “story” or a “biographical narrative”? This will take a little explaining, so stick with me here.

When the Certification Discussion Group (CDG) meets in session six (the Kinship Determination Project or KDP), I try to explain how I define each term by asking each attendee if they are natural born story tellers or  technical writers. Each person self identifies easily. There is usually a spectrum of writers of each type who desire to attain the credential of Certified Genealogist. from the Board for Certification of Genealogists, but most lean, sometimes heavily, towards the label of technical writers.

On 11 March 2020, Lynn Palermo of Family History Writing Studio wrote “Why you should almost never end your ancestor’s story with their death.“[1] While often her tips are germane to the portfolio writing (e.g. time management, writing transitions, etc.), in this episode she urged us to not end your family history story with “Fred Smith died 8 August 1872 in Buffalo, New York,” but rather with a value statement. I was just about to write that those of you working on your Kinship Determination Project didn’t need to listen to her tip of the week, because it doesn’t have anything to do with writing a “biographical narrative” like the KDP.

That would have been bad advice. 

I decided to look at the last paragraphs in the eight successful portfolios in the Certification Discussion Group’s library to see how each submitter ended the three generations of their KDP.[2]

  • If the submitter wrote about the death and gave the date or reported factual information related to the death, e.g. probate, heirs, the number of individuals at the funeral, I categorized the ending as “died.”
  • If the submitter ended the generation with a value statement that might be a “lesson for life,” I categorized the end as “value.”
  • If the submitter wrote anything else other than a paragraph(s) that could be labeled a “value” statement or “died, then it was labeled “other.”

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 7.50.20 PM.png

In the examples above, there is a preponderance of “she died…” statements.

In the discussion that ensued, Cinda Baxter contributed:

“Kinship Determination Projects are REPORTS.

  • KDPs require very specific structural elements, including birth, marriage & death facts…
  • KDPs are not supposed to follow a “plot;” they need to follow a factual timeline.
  • Some generations may provide the freedom to end on a value, while others are better served ending on a factual event (death).
  • Although written in narrative form, they aren’t “stories about…how [ancestors] changed the course of your family history.”… 

Family history writing for other audiences/purposes provides the freedom to craft narrative as a storyline…”[3]

Genealogy Standards requires us, in Standard 73. Biographical Information: to provide details which provide “sufficient information about each person’s or family’s….circumstances…to identify them uniquely within the context of their historical era, society and geographic place.”[4]

Your emigrant’s hair may have blown in the wind as the boat sailed across the ocean, but  where is your evidence of that and does it support their place in the context of their life? The evidence you provide has to be meaningful to the narrative, supporting your case that this is one individual with one life, with no confusion with another individual. What you write in your KDP has to be “relevant.”

There is a broad spectrum from “boring recitation of facts” to “the wind blowing in her hair.” The writing of a KDP leans towards the “boring recitation of facts” rather than “the wind”, but that leaves a lot of latitude for that “really cool story” that you want to include— if documented. Remember, the POINT of the KDP is to show that your individual is not being confused with another individual and they have a smooth transition of life events that are consistent and not conflicting.

Notice that I am not making a judgement as to how you ought to end your KDP, but rather I am showing that there are multiple ways to end each generation.

[1] Lynn Palermo, “Why you should never end your ancestor’s story with their death,” Family History Writing Studio, 11 March 2020 (  : accessed 11 March 2020), video clip.
[2] The Certification Discussion Group has a private webpage for attendees of the course only. At this time there are eight portfolios in the library. If you are interested in taking the course, see The program is sponsored by the Seattle Genealogical Society, 6200 Sand Point Way, Seattle, WA.
[3] Cinda Baxter, response to Facebook post by Jill Morelli,  “Certification Discussion Group,” Facebook, ( : 11 March 2020). This is a private Facebook group for former attendees of the course only. Ms. Baxter’s response is used with her permission and is lightly edited.
[4] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, Second Edition (Nashville, Tennessee :, 2019) 40.



WAYtoGo: An Efficient Way to Write

WAYtoGoHearing a number of people asking for some assistance in how to “write as you go,” Seattle Genealogical Society agreed that I could developed an online workshop to do just that! This two session workshop will be oriented towards the intermediate to advanced researcher, but it should be helpful to anyone who is trying to solve a brick wall, write a case study or client report.

The “write as you go” course, WAYtoGo, is now open for registration.  There are assignments! It is recommended that you spend at least 10 hours on the “assignment.”

You can find out more information at

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last “post” (when I took down the post on verifying my lineage using DNA for my portfolio): I attended FGS and had an extended conversation with Karen Stanbary about what I posted. I am now reworking it. Oh, and I presented 3 times at FGS.  I have to get working on my syllabi for the North Carolina GS conference I will be attending in 1 & 2 November. I am probably already behind!