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27 February 2009

Back to Basics

Something unexpected happened last October during Family History Month when the California Genealogical Society teamed up with the Oakland Regional Family History Center to present a Beginning Genealogy series of four classes -- people came, lots of people came. A total of fifty students took advantage of the series, surprising organizers – but in a good way!

CGS President Jane Lindsey and Marge Bell, Assistant Director of the ORFHC, were the masterminds behind the joint venture. Marge recalls that Jane came up with the idea during a conversation the two had about ways to get more visitors to the libraries. The ORFHC has hosted lots of classes but Marge doesn't remember ever having more than 5 or 6 students attend any session.

Jane reported on the success of the Beginners Series to the CGS Board of Directors in November and she brought along a proposal for Intermediate classes in 2009. I recall that it was Jane Hufft, savvy editor of the new California Nugget, who suggested starting the next series of classes right away. Hufft recognized immediately that Jane and Marge had created a winning formula and that the society should piggyback on their success.

Was she ever right! The eight-session Intermediate Series started on January 17 and the response has been overwhelming. Classes are filled to capacity – thirty students on Saturdays at CGS and fifty at the ORFHC sessions on Tuesdays – so a waiting list had to be created. Registration fliers for more classes starting in April are already available for download at the CGS website.

What exactly is behind the success? Jane and Marge aren't really sure. Certainly the price is right – the classes are free with just a nominal ($15) charge for the series syllabus – especially in this economic environment. And the instructors must be doing something right – more than half of those who took the beginners classes re-upped, and some are bringing their friends.

But I think there's a bit more going on here. Much has been written about whether the Internet has helped or hurt genealogical society membership but no one disputes the fact that the Internet makes genealogy research seem easy. We know that it isn't and that at some point all that surfing and collecting will lead to a confused mess, if you don't know the basics.

In his post "Who Do You Think You Are?" Series is coming - are we ready for it?, Randy Seaver wrote about the potential fascination with family history likely to be sparked by the upcoming NBC television series. First he asked, "What should local and regional genealogy societies be doing to prepare for the anticipated swelling of interest after the series starts? Then Randy gave some answers including: "Have beginning genealogy classes ready to roll after 20 April."*

You're right, Randy, classes are the answer, but there is no need to wait – the interest is already out there. The California Genealogical Society and the Oakland Regional Family History Center found that out when we went with the basics.

*The start date for WDYTYA has been pushed back to the summer.