Thursday, July 12, 2007

One society to reduce itself to 15 members?

One would not think that the phrases “political hot bed” and “genealogy society” would have anything in common. This isn’t a movie script, this is REALITY.


In my travels as a genealogy speaker, Ol’ Myrt has observed that bitter power struggles are common among members of the “old school” and “new blood” in genealogy societies. As older members step down, new boards feel they must revamp everything in the by-laws, and go so far as to literally cast aspersions on the name of previous board members. In one mid-western state two groups are so polarized that they do not support each other’s annual family history seminars although they exist in the same county. AMAZING.

Believe it or not, it is common to observe challenges in strained relationships between genealogy societies and Family History Center directors when these two entities should be particularly open to other members of the genealogical community. It is almost as if the two are competing for a genealogist’s time. GOOD HEAVENS.

When genealogical societies manage multi-million dollar assets, it would appear the squabbling takes on greater proportions.

Leslie Corn writes
“Over the last few years, the Society’s endowment has shrunk from about $5,000,000 to what is now probably in the low six figures. (The 2006 financials have not been posted to the website, as I gather they should have been.) Though I do not know from my own experience, I have been told that this loss was primarily due to poor investments and lack of oversight of those investments—oversight that was and is a primary fiduciary responsibility of the board.”
Readers may remember the venerable NGS National Genealogical Society emerged from similar financial and management challenges.

Joan Lowrey writes

“As president of a neighboring state-level genealogical society - and this is my unofficial position here - I am frustrated by the lack of participation by our members and believe that other board members are also. However, rather than seeking to disenfranchise our members so we can "do what we want" - we are trying to find ways to increase member participation.”
With permission, I quote the full text posted by Roger D. Joslyn, CG, FGBS, FASG to the APG (Association of Professional Genealogists) Mailing List:

Sent: Wednesday, July 11, 2007 8:57 PM
Subject: [APG] NYG&BS

Some of you may have been following the various discussions online (at APG, BCG, Rootsweb, etc.) concerning the recent bylaws changes proposed by the board of trustees of The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&BS, G&B).

As a long-time and active member, I am saddened, no, I am appalled by the board’s proposed changes to the bylaws.

These proposed changes include having members vote to:

(1) Eliminate all members of the G&B. The Society, as the new bylaws state, “shall have no members.”

(2) Give up their right to vote for trustees, bylaws changes, and any other changes in the
organization, now or any time in the future. This disenfranchisement is permanent.

(3) Empower a board of only fifteen trustees to remove itself from accountability in any manner, in governance or fiscally, except as mandated by law.

(4) Empower this board of fifteen to listen to no other voices than its own.

Some members may have voted without reading the proposed change (it was not mailed with the proxy vote and can only be seen in the members’ area of the G&B’s website) and others may have voted before the proposed changes were online (the mailing went out ahead of the society getting the changes online). Perhaps some members do not understand the possible far-reaching negative consequences of a positive vote.

While it is true most members of a genealogical society probably do not participate in its elections, to paraphrase one person who has posted online about this proposed bylaws change: One can chose to vote or not to vote, but not having a right to vote is another matter.

The NYG&BS has the upper hand in soliciting its proxy votes for the proposed bylaws change. They could tell their side of the story and they did so, in my opinion and experience, incorrectly.

Waddell Stillman, chair of the society’s board of trustees, explained in his cover letter to the proxy ballot of June 22, 2007, that the changes in the bylaws are needed to protect the society from such dissidents who voiced a different opinion about the G&B’s sale of its

“A handful of members, acting to thwart the unanimous vote of the board of trustees and overwhelming vote of the membership, delayed the sale for months. The NY State Supreme Court felt obligated to hear these few dissenters out, long after the NY State Attorney General had endorsed the sale, because our governance system gives each individual member legal standing to object to a proposed action. In addition, of course, the buyer of our building was only too happy to keep his money while time wasted away, costing the G&B tens of thousands of dollars in foregone interest income it cannot recover” [emphasis added]. The same incorrect statement was made by the outgoing chair of the board of trustees, Harry Lindh, at the society’s annual meeting on 6 March of this year, and most recently by the president of the society, William P. Johns, in the Spring 2007 issue of The New York Researcher.

First, as we should all appreciate in this country, it is the legal right for members to voice opinions different from the board. Members should not be bullied, chastised, or made into scapegoats, because of differing opinions.

Second, since the NYG&BS is a not-for-profit organization, approval for the sale of its building had to be made by the Charities Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s office.

Third, once the Bureau’s opinion was completed, then and only then could a hearing in the New York Supreme Court be scheduled at which “interested parties” could appear and present arguments against the decision. All this is laid out in A Guide to Sales and Other Dispositions of Assets Pursuant to Not-For-Profit Corporation Law '' 501511 and Religious Corporations Law ' 12, available online at:

According to an attorney in the Charities Bureau, there is normally a fifteen-day wait for a hearing to be scheduled after the Attorney General has approved a sale, but, as I was told, the G&B “lobbied heavily” to shorten the time. The hearing was, therefore, scheduled within a few days of the Charities Bureau’s decision on the sale.

The attorney knew of no delay for “months” as the president and the chairman have stated. The Attorney General and State Supreme Court did not hear “objections from these few members over the course of several months this winter and spring” as claimed by Mr. Johns in his president’s column in the latest Record, nor, as the president also wrote, did these persons “[succeed] robbing the Society of the ability to act decisively and in its best interest.”

The board’s insistence that the by-laws should be changed and members eliminated because of this supposed lengthy delay is, therefore, from what I have been told, based on a false premise.

The Charities Bureau attorney was also surprised that Mr. Stillman claimed in his letter that the cost of the supposed delay was “tens of thousands of dollars” which the attorney said could only be possible if the legal fees were around $10,000 an hour.

Personally, I have little confidence in a board that resorts to misrepresenting the facts. I have serious concerns about entrusting the board absolutely and without oversight in the future of the G&B, considering its fiscal track record and utter lack of proposed plans for the future. The board has only resorted to scapegoating and finger-pointing and empty statements of positive change. They have given us no reason to believe in its ability to lead.

I vote “No” to empowering this group of fifteen to have absolute power over the NYGBS. I do not believe that the board has shown itself to be worthy of such a trust.

If you have not voted, please do so now as you see fit, knowing all the facts. If you have not
read the proposed bylaws changes before voting, please do so.

If you have voted and wish to change your vote, I have been advised by counsel that
you can change your proxy vote. Simply download a new proxy form from the G&B’s website and clearly mark on it the date and a note that this is to replace your earlier proxy vote. You can also come to the meeting at the society on 19 July and request that your proxy be destroyed and vote at the meeting."

Dick Eastman weighs in on the challenges of larger societies in his Plus Edition article titled
Comment on Genealogy Libraries and Buildings.
In case you have not heard the news, many genealogy libraries are struggling financially these days. For this article, I will focus solely on the larger societies that have their own buildings or perhaps rent a significant amount of space in other buildings. I will also look
only at societies that have libraries that are not funded by taxpayer dollars. Many of them have paid employees, although not all do. […] Each of these libraries holds thousands of books of value to genealogists. Yet I believe that each of these libraries is in danger of extinction. Like so many species of creatures that saw their source of sustenance dwindling, some will evolve and others will disappear.”

Dick Eastman makes additional public comments in his column
NYG&B Proposes to Implode .

“The Board of Directors has proposed an amendment to the organization's by-laws that will eliminate all memberships in the Society, other than the 15 people who sit on the Board of Directors. That's right: the proposal states that there will only be fifteen members, and they
alone will run the society. They will not be answerable to anyone else. Today's treasury, library, and all other assets will become the sole property of the very small genealogy society, controlled entirely by fifteen people. […]

First, you'll want to read the letter you received in the mail from NYG&B. Next, you'll want to read the complete details that the Board of Directors posted in the members-only section of the society's web site at (click on "Members' Area" and enter your NYG&B user name and password). The web site version reportedly contains information that the letter does not include.

Next, I'd suggest that you balance this with a "second opinion". Read some of the online discussions. You might start with Dick Hillenbrand's article on "Upstate NY Genealogy Notes" at”

Richard Pence comments:
“My immediate thought on this is that it is that it is one thing to have the vote in an organization and choose not to use it and quite another to not have a vote.”

Sharon Sergeant compares online availability of documents with the value of personal on-site research.

“Escalating digital collections from various public and commercial sources do give us greater information mobility. But I do not know of one digital site that provides the accumulated years of experience and guidance that one finds with large institutions on-site. We also learn from on-site visual cues that are not included or integrated into the keyhole view that we get with computer screens.What are the opportunities for collaborations that would creatively address economic realities, as well as the need for scholarly environments that not only cherish the materials, but the researchers?”
Money does play a role in preservation of one’s ancestry -- in recent years we've observed the changes at Ancestry & Everton in addition to the proliferation of commercial genealogy websites.

Historically this may also be true. Can you imagine a farmer like Charles Ingall’s taking the money for seed crop and food on the table and spending it instead on compiling and publishing a 900 page book about the INGALLS FAMILY OF WISCONSIN, MISSOURI, & MINNESOTA only to follow it up with a multi-volume supplement titled 13 GENERATIONS OF INGALLS PROGENITORS IN THE OLD WORLD? Thankfully, his daughter
Laura Ingalls Wilder deftly tells the story of four generations in her historical fiction books that formed the basis for the popular television series “Little House on the Prairie.”

From 1880-1910 - it was only the wealthy who could afford to have their photos, bios and “pedigrees” included in those old “mug books” and county histories.

From roughly 1776-1815 ownership of a library of books was a possibility reserved for the wealthy few. You will recall that Thomas Jefferson offered his library of books to the Library of Congress.

“The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. The legislation described a reference
library for Congress only, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress - and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein...."

Established with $5,000 appropriated by the legislation, the original library was housed in the new Capitol until August 1814, when invading British troops set fire to the Capitol Building, burning and pillaging the contents of the small library.

Within a month, retired President Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating books, "putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science"; his library was considered to be one of the finest in the United States. In offering his collection to Congress, Jefferson anticipated controversy over the nature of his collection, which included books in foreign languages and volumes of philosophy, science, literature, and other topics not normally viewed as part of a legislative library. He wrote, "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."

In January 1815, Congress accepted Jefferson's offer, appropriating $23,950 for his 6,487 books, and the foundation was laid for a great national library. The Jeffersonian concept of universality, the belief that all subjects are important to the library of the American legislature, is the philosophy and rationale behind the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress.

Does it take an act of Congress to get people working together?

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
Your friend in genealogy.

(c) 2007 Pat Richley All Rights Reserved.

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