Thursday, May 24, 2012

Applecart: Thoughts on volunteerism

Unfortunately, in discussions with high profile genealogy bloggers at RootsTech 2012, via telephone, email and most recently at NGS2012, there has emerged a realization that some of our readers quite simply have become very demanding of our volunteer time. We are fielding requests from folks who assume we do this as a full-time paid job. People have come to expect immediate, personalized attention that's not within the scope of our work. And they expect us to do things for them for free.

Lately Ol' Myrt has noticed people posting unkind things like "Where the heck is the .pdf handout for that freebie webinar?" Without regard to my time or web server space, they've been demanding that I put a webinar in my archive on their time schedule.
I say demand, because the emails are sent and resent. These same comments are pasted to my blog and on my Facebook email or Facebook page. I've had to learn to ignore this peculiar form of harassment, since the majority of my DearREADERS are very kind and appreciative of the work that I do manage to accomplish from time to time.

I've thought long and hard about how to address this subject Ol' Myrt considers worthy of your attention.

Most genealogy bloggers are not employees of big corporations like the well-respected Kimberly Powell of the most popular blog provided by the New York Times. Some genealogy bloggers like Barbara Mathews, CG are employed by others to do research. She also writes in blog format to express additional thoughts about family history. Lisa Alzo recently gave up regular full-time employment to take on her speaking and writing about genealogy full time. 

Some writers like Dick Eastman are retired and devote countless hours sharing genealogy info online. I'm in this category, in that I no longer teach at the local technical institute, but do speak publicly from time to time in person and regularly in Second Life and in my DearMYRTLE workshop webinars.

Arguably, most genealogy bloggers are self-employed, usually out of the industry, and yet elect to spend their precious volunteer hours putting pen to paper. OK, make that fingertips to keyboard.

"If you want something to get done, ask a busy person." I hear ya, but I think we can all agree there are limits. In my case, I actually took classes to learn to say "No". Yet, out of the goodness of their hearts, I've seen genealogy volunteers over-extend to the point of exhaustion. Yes, volunteers must learn to draw the line at X number of volunteer hours per week, and not feel guilty when expressing that fact if asked to do more. But shouldn't we also adjust our level of expectations and not demand so much of our volunteer genealogy bloggers?

There is much buzz about social networking of late -- and it's impact on an individual. Psychologists are advising people to turn off their electronic devices and be present to family and friends instead of, say,  texting at the dinner table. Personally, I live a pretty open life. Most folks who know me and Mr. Myrt follow our travels and research experiences on Facebook and in my blog. Other genealogy bloggers choose a more private life, and that is sometimes perhaps a little bit wiser.

Let's step back, and realize  since 99% of the genealogy bloggers out there are volunteers, we cannot press them to post on a routine basis, tackle our personal technology challenges or bust through our ancestral brick walls. 

YES, we should have healthy dialog to improve our research methodology and encourage each other when reporting our successes and, yes, our failures. But let's not confuse a blogger's openness with the 24/7 tech support provided by some major freebie genealogy websites like That organization has over 10,000 volunteers on standby to handle family history questions in about twenty different languages.

Genealogy bloggers come to the blogging table for a variety of reasons. It may be to honor an ancestor by chronicling recent research, or it may be to share how-to information gleaned in the process. In my case, Ol' Myrt here loves spotlighting the wonderful things other people are doing on and off the net to make it easier for folks to find info about their ancestors.

Let us remember genealogy bloggers are people too. They've got real life concerns and pursuits. Family, health, travel, education, friends, and quilting (in my case!) come immediately to mind. 

This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. Information from itsdescription page there is shown below. Commons is a freely licensed media file repository.
If our goal is to achieve a happy life then it behooves us to place these various pursuits in perspective. Sometimes our priorities may shift, but to the genealogy bloggers out there, let's not let those pushy readers upset the applecart.

I pray I don't even inadvertently upset someone else's applecart.

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

Twitter: @DearMYRTLE
Second Life: Clarise Beaumont 


  1. I need to take that "saying no" class. Did it help?

  2. Well said Myrt. We all appreciate everything you do, including speaking up on hard issues like this one.

  3. Myrt, we appreciate all that you do and hope the good apples outnumber the bad ones.
    Thanks for everything and I enjoy reading you blog and your webinars.

  4. Life is all about balance, some days balance, others, whew, DON'T!!

    Saying no is part of it, learning your limits another, learning to listen to your heart and soul and tired ole body another.

    When I do too much volunteer and don't take a bit of time here and there for me, the resentments mount. I learned that a few years ago, and have been pretty good about not going there again, most of the time. LOL

    But, it is hard, learning to balance. That danged tight rope is hard to walk and stay balanced on.

  5. Thank you for your example and support to fellow bloggers. For me the key is balance. I love what I do and I don't want to burn out or over extend myself to the point that I lose that passion. Blogging is principally for the benefit of my family and fellow genealogy friends.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you - and this is coming from someone who has felt very "burnt out" as of late.

    First, I want to say that I've always felt appreciated by both the societies and groups with whom I volunteer as well as the genealogy community as a whole. But often a combination of lack of volunteers, lack of skills and inability to say no can lead to volunteers just giving up and walking away.

    Second, you are spot on in terms of "over volunteering" and I've had to learn to say no.

    Third, thanks for helping to combat the concept of one constantly having their hand out when it comes to offerings in the genealogy community. I can't tell you how frustrating to constantly see comments and questions such as "Where is my FREE handout" or "Where is my FREE recording" etc. Sometimes the healthy sense of entitlement makes me wonder if this is just the general M.O. for some folks or if, somehow, the genealogy field has helped perpetuate this and we need a big community intervention.

    Finally, I appreciate everything you do for us in genealogy!

  7. Even those of us who work for big corporations can't say yes to everything. These big corporations are run by people who have families and lives outside of work. And, as much as I love the genealogy community and want to serve, I have to draw some lines. I might need that saying no class, too.

  8. You know what's really funny, we have just started up a new pilot at FamilySearch to offer live assistance (over phone/chat) to those with questions about their research. We are starting with specialist queues (currently Ohio and 1940 census), soon to add more, but will also eventually add a more general queue.

    I've wondered if bloggers get a lot of how-to research questions, so we've considered reaching out to the blogging community to see if a resource such as that would be helpful.

    The idea is that a blogger could post a button on their blogs giving a link to where people could get that research help. If they get emailed questions, they could just forward the link. Do you all think that something like this would be a help to you, so you don't have to say no, but can instead refer?

    1. Dear Janell, Thanks for remind us, there are wonderful resources out there. I frequently refer people to the FamilySearch Wiki, and in fact discussed it as part of my "Where to Look Next" presentation tonight for the local Fairfax (Virginia) Genealogical Society.

    2. Janell - that sounds very cool. I love the idea of bloggers being able to post a link to your live assistance site. Even non-live assistance (which does sound funny given genealogists deal with the non-living a lot) would, in my opinion, be welcomed by most! I'd love to hear more about it. -tami

  9. Thanks, Myrt, for writing so eloquently on this topic. The geneablogging community is overwhelmingly generous, it's a sad fact of life that some people take advantage of us.

    I'll be sending a link to your post to a guy who has been hassling me this week.

  10. I think this is a two fold problem.

    1st - Now, because of how easy things are technology wise, people think that allows them the right to demand more. I've said for years that the faster things go the more impatient humans become. People tend to forget what it was like in the "good ole days" when you had to write off and wait and wait and wait for an answer for anything.

    2nd - the disconnect that the computer and the internet gives users allow people to not make the correlation that the "user" they are sending emails, Facebook messages and blog comments to is still a person with feelings and real life demands. Of course it is also my "theory" that the technology that we are talking about only magnifies peoples personalities. If they are "butts" in real life then they are even bigger "butts" on the internet.

    Please remember when you are being pressured by the "big butts" on the internet, that there a lot more of us that appreciate you and all the work you do in your own time than there are of them.

    As an aside it was so nice to met you at NGS, I'm the one that rattled on about...what ever it was that I rattled on about. ;)

  11. Words, well spoken, Dear Myrtle!
    I know that I am not alone in my feeling of gratitude as I attempt to express a perpetual “thanks” for your generosity in sharing all that you have, whole-heartedly, with so many despite the many ‘hats’ you wear. We are blessed by your Webinars and informative updates that you continually prepare and provide to us so faithfully and prudently. Not only have you been a tremendous ‘resource‘ and support on a consistent basis to those of us in the genealogy community, but you also have been a wonderful example.
    As I glean and learn, I look forward to ‘taking my place’ in an effort to help others in the genealogy community, as well.
    Despite our best efforts, in life there are always those ‘little foxes that spoil the vine’ and the challenge is to persevere in the likelihood that those times are far and few between as the more significant events become more evident.
    As our ‘to do’ tasks continue to grow, there will always be viable tasks to add on to the list, yet we all benefit from assessing the timing and whether our involvement is the ‘right’ thing for that time.
    I don’t mean to be so wordy, but thank you for all that you do and may the blessings you give out, come back to you in multiplied abundance for you and your family.

  12. I see irony in this post. Prominent genealogists including yourself have not hesitated to ask genealogists to give, give, give of their time to index the 1940 census and other records. And many of these volunteer-created indexes, including the 1940 census, also go to what you've called "big corporations" who've partnered on the indexing projects.

    The language for the FamilySearch indexing ask is more polite than what you describe from the individuals who contact you, but it does not take into account anyone's busy schedule, and the pressure to comply can be heavy.

    Genealogists are being trained to expect—and provide—free products and services.

    1. Fortunately, in this case, the 1940 census index will always be free, but I hear ya!

  13. So well said:) Thank you to you, and all the fellow online genealogy volunteers that share as much as they do, I learn so much from you all.

  14. This is a societal problem, not just one that effects the genealogical community. I volunteer for Girl Scouts, soccer, I've done 4H, etc., and it is the same thing.

    People today (in general)are too plugged in, tuned out, and in need of instant gratification. They suffer from huge entitlement issues and are willing to put forth little in order to get what they want/need. Again, I am speaking in generalities.

    I admit, I am disappointed when there isn't a handout, but I am more thankful that I got to watch a freebie webinar. And I do my share in giving back.

    It's amazing the shift in society over the last couple of decades. A handshake means little anymore, commitments are easily broken, people don't say please and thank you as often, and in the grocery store they give looks of disgust because you are standing in THEIR way, even though YOU were there first!

    It's a much deeper and bigger problem than just the gene scene.

    Thanks, Myrt, for all you do. I know I appreciate it =0)

    Angela Kraft-
    Leaves of Heritage Genealogy
    "Let's shake some history from your family tree!"sm

  15. Say NO... and the most important part:
    *never explain - never,
    *never discuss why/how/what - never,
    *never offer maybe a bit of a yes - never,
    Instead, just smile and say no. Once. Or as many times as needed. No. Only no.

    No one can take advantage of our time-energy-knowledge-resources, or harass you, without your permission.

    Too many of us have been taught to "be nice" and of course, "help others" ... and we seem to have concluded (wrongly) that also meant to give over your life and time etc. to others even when they are definitely "not nice". Give simply because some one asks or demands it. Sometimes we give a mixed message because we know that it will only take a few minutes anyway... Hmmm. Let's remember that we are part of the problem. In my past life, as part of my volunteer work, I used to teach assertive communications to groups of women and of course, I learned a huge amount about my own tendency to please others, to help others, to be nice, etc.!

    A great post with thoughtful comments too. In the main, this is a very thoughtful encouraging community.

  16. I now subscribe to the "One In--One Out" program. I don't add a new job until I've shed an old one. I find it keeps everything in balance and lets me maintain an actual life!

  17. Myrt, you couldn't know it but you have just given me a well needed high-5! Only minutes before reading your post I boldly' clicked "send" on an email to a person who has been a thorn in my side for years. At long last I had worked up the gumption to explain that, even though I am retired, I am not footeloose and fancy, with nothing to do but free research for her.

    As soon as I hit send I had thoughts of having been too terse and unkind - even though all I did was gently say I couldn't "help" her any longer without her monetary appreciation! Your post has given me vindication! Thank you so much.

  18. Well said on a topic that unfortunately needs to be aired. The "They should be doing more than this" "I am entitled to this" "why don't they do this" concept has invaded many areas of life but especially in groups whetehr it is family history, scouts, lapidary, etc.

    Volunteers do get burnt out especially as the more you do the more that is expected and the jobs fall on the same people all the time.

    Reminds me of a story/fairy tale from years ago of a large rock placed in the middle of a busy road and how all the people complained while going around it that "someone should do something about it" (in the story a poor woodsman did shift the rock to the side and found the purse of gold under it). Finally the people realised that they were "someone". Just not sure how we can persuade people about that today.