Is It Time To Drop Your Society?

On 24 May 2014, the Ohio Historical Society will be renamed Ohio History Connection.

On 24 May 2014, the Ohio Historical Society will be renamed Ohio History Connection.

The Ohio Historical Society has announced that as of 24 May 2014, it will change its name to “Ohio History Connection.” Why? According to Executive Director Burt Logan, “There’s a disconnect between the quality of services we’re providing and the image, hinging on the name.” (Columbus Dispatch, 21 April 2014.) The name “Ohio Historical Society” is seen by the public as stodgy and antiquated.

I am a long-time member of and researcher at the Ohio Historical Society. I cut my research teeth at OHS. I researched a huge chunk of my senior thesis there. I did an internship there when I was an undergrad. It is a facility that is near and dear to my heart. So it took me awhile to muse about this name change. After mulling it over, I have to say that I agree with their decision.

What’s In a Name?

If you’re trying to reach a younger crowd and tap into new audiences (those who don’t self-identify as “historians” or “history buffs”), you’re not going to get very far if you first have to overcome the hurdle of a stodgy name. Though it is cliché, you really don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s hard to have the opportunity to show someone — let alone convince them — that you’re relevant to their interests if they can’t get past your name.

There’s another problem with having a name that’s off-putting. People don’t want to be associated with a group whose name they have issues with. I’ve experienced this myself. I love science and there’s a page on Facebook that shares awesome photos and fun science facts. But I’m not going to “like” the page because of its name: “I F***ing Love Science.” (Yes, replace the asterisks with the appropriate letters and you have the name of the page.) I can’t see myself sharing their photos and have it say, “Amy shared I F***ing Love Science’s photo.”

Though it isn’t as extreme, it isn’t hard to imagine people who would say, “Historical society? I don’t want to be a part of an old fogies’ group like that.”

hurdlesA Hurdle to Clear

Let’s think of this in terms of genealogy. I remember a few years ago talking to someone about attending the Ohio Genealogical Society’s annual conference. I was going on and on about some of the speakers I was looking forward to hearing and some of the vendors I wanted to buy from. She said, “Oh, that sounds great! Too bad I can’t go since I’m not a member.” I had to explain to her that the conference was open to anyone who paid the registration fee.

She saw “society” and thought “members-only.” The name “Ohio Genealogical Society” was a hurdle she had to clear in order to even consider trying to access it.

How many people see the word “society” in the name of your favorite genealogy organization and think that it’s stodgy or that there’s nothing for them since they aren’t a member?

Walk the Walk

Dropping the word “society” from your name isn’t going to automatically bring in tons of new, young members. It isn’t going to bring in groups that don’t instantly identify with genealogy. Having an accessible name is just part of talking the talk. You also have to walk the walk.

Maybe the group really is stodgy. Maybe it really doesn’t offer anything to non-members. Maybe it hasn’t embraced technology and how it can further the group’s mission. If so, no name change is going to overcome that.

You can take an old, tired, broken-down, stuffy group and wrap it in a new name — but you’ll still have an old, tired, broken-down, stuffy group. Conversely, you can have a group that is doing amazing things, but with the wrong name, it could be creating unnecessary hurdles for people to get to know them.

I know that genealogy societies can be awesome, and you (hopefully) know that genealogy societies can be awesome. But does the person who isn’t completely obsessed with family history know that? Could the name itself be part of the problem for reaching new people and new audiences?

I don’t think a name change alone will cure all of the ills facing so many of our societies today. But I do think that it warrants taking a look at. How about you? What’s your experience?

8 thoughts on “Is It Time To Drop Your Society?

  1. Liz Kelley Kerstens, CG

    Amy, I totally agree with the name change idea. It took me a few years to convince my board of directors, but we changed the name of the Plymouth Historical Society to Friends of the Plymouth Historical Museum a few years back. The reasoning was that “society” was stodgy and “friends” was welcoming. Good move and great blog!

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Thanks, Liz. I’m not sure I’m completely on board with “Connection,” but I do think it’s an improvement over “Society” in this case.

  2. Jennifer Alford

    I am with you on the society name making people think twice about getting involved. I feel the same about that Facebook science group too. I enjoy the things they post, but having that title puts me off. I hope the name change brings good things for the group!

  3. Denise

    I actually like the word connection. It has a kind of open and welcoming connotation, to me at least. Great blog!!

  4. Nancy Beach

    For probably a decade or longer I have dropped the term association/society from our name when doing promotions or presentations, and just use York County Historical as a way to indicate membership isn’t require to use our facility. While I hadn’t considered changing our name, I have considered adding a sub-title to our signage and publications that would better define who and what we are.

    While I wholeheartedly agree with the logic of a name change, and will be sharing this article with our board, there are two things I’d have to ponder longer.

    1. Often when people outside of our area who want to donate artifacts or archival materials find us by searching for “historical society” for our county. Would they find us as easily with the name change?

    2. While “society” can imply stodgy, it can also imply longevity. Donors like knowing something has been around for a long time, and will continue to be there long into the future. Researchers often assume organizations with some longevity will have larger collections.

    This is a tough one. I’ll be interested to see how it works out.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      You bring up an excellent point. How does an organization brand itself so that it’s meaningful for both the casual user (who might get hooked and become a passionate user) as well as the long-term researcher/scholar/user? Definitely no easy answers.

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