Perfecting Society Publications

Last month, while pondering which genealogical societies to renew memberships in or join, I also ruminated on the value of a society’s publications to its membership, and how the quality of a periodical might influence the size and loyalty of said membership. Like many genealogists, I enjoy receiving a variety of journals, quarterlies, and newsletters over the course of each year. Each periodical varies in scope and content, and each provides valuable information to the society’s members.

That being said, some periodicals are of better quality than others. My absolute favorite is the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, which is edited by two well-qualified experts in the field. Publication in the Q is highly sought after, but only the most well-crafted and researched articles are able to pass through the rigorous review process.

Obviously, not every publication can attain the same level of stature, but every society should strive to have the best periodical it can. Here are my thoughts, as both a reader and an author, on how societies can perfect their publications.

A Good Editor

No factor is more important to the quality of a publication than its editor. A good editor is easily accessible, has broad experience as a researcher, and is knowledgeable specifically about the locality or subject covered by the society. Additionally, a good editor must understand the nuances of the publishing business, from meeting deadlines to citation and style standards to the appropriate use of fonts.

Unfortunately, this is also the hardest position to fill. Editors give a great deal of their time to a society, possibly more than any other member including the society’s officers. And since most societies cannot afford even a token stipend in return for an editor’s hard work, the position is left to the volunteer who has the most time, whether that volunteer has the experience to head the society’s publication or not.

Most new editors muddle through just fine with the help of previous editors and other volunteers and eventually learn the tricks of the trade, but some never quite meet the grade. If your publication is reduced to articles submitted almost solely by the editor, then there may be a problem beyond a lack of contributors. A bad editor, one who never learns the business of editing or who alienates contributors through arrogance or inexperience, can be the death of not only a publication, but of the society itself. After all, a society’s publication is arguably its largest benefit, and if members are not gaining that benefit, particularly members who cannot attend meetings or volunteer, then what reason have they for continuing their membership?

On the other hand, a good editor will fuel the society with the output of a quality publication, attracting both contributors to the publication and members to the society. Each society should have a well-thought-out screening process for editors that includes a check of previous experience and qualifications. If an inexperienced but enthusiastic volunteer is the best option (and it often is), then the society should strongly consider paying for training. At the very least, the society should have on hand for the editor’s use such standards as The Chicago Manual of Style; Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills; Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians edited by Mills; and a good general guide on editing.

Content

An editor can drive the content of a publication, but great input on the direction of the publication should come from the society itself. For example, the East Georgia Genealogical Society decided that its primary publication, Georgia Settlers, would focus almost solely on records transcriptions, and it is up to the editor to work within that frame. The Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society has recently taken a different approach with its quarterly, A Lot of Bunkum, and appears to be moving toward a mixed content format, with nearly equal portions of records transcriptions and research articles being published.

For many societies, the editor is free to take what he or she can get, primarily because contributors are sometimes difficult to come by. Regardless of all other factors, editors should focus on providing quality content that fits the society’s overall mission. Sloppy or incomplete transcriptions and poorly written articles should never be published as is, but can be improved greatly by an editor who is willing to work with the contributor or author.

Editors should also keep their finger on the pulse of member interests and needs. The former is usually much easier to distinguish than the latter because many members will communicate their interests outright. An editor can discern members’ unspoken needs through careful listening, prompting articles or series on, for example, specific transcribed records, research skills, or descriptions of archival holdings, as needs demand.

Appearance

Just as societies and editors should strive for quality content, they should also strive for a professional appearance for their publications. I will never forget my dismay when one local society in which I was a member changed editors several years ago. The appearance of the society’s publication very shortly took a turn for the worse when the new editor discontinued printing through a printing press and instead used a photocopier. The previous editor maintained a high standard in the publication’s appearance, with clean formatting, crisp text, and sharp images. After the editorial change, photocopy lines could be easily distinguished on every page, the text was fuzzy and often too light to read, images were blurred beyond recognition, and the formatting was a nightmare.

All of those changes were completely unnecessary. Even at that time, desktop publishing provided an affordable way for societies to produce publications with a professional appearance, and that has not changed. Today’s software is easy to learn and use. For societies with budgetary issues, a professional quality publication can be produced using Microsoft Word, although there are, I have been told, affordable options among the many programs specifically designed for publishing.

The best policy in this area is usually to adhere to industry standards, a good overview of which can be found in Professional Genealogy in the chapter on editing and publishing. When in doubt, look to other similar publications for ideas. Many state societies regularly hold contests for newsletters and quarterlies published by local and regional societies. Winning entries are bound to be good examples for peer societies to learn from.

Accessibility

Probably the biggest problem any editor has is attracting regular authors and contributors. Sometimes this is due to a lack of interest or time from society members, although occasionally there could be a problem with the editor. Just as frequently, the lack of contributors could be because no one knows what’s been previously published. Societies can combat this problem by placing on their web site an up-to-date list of back issues with content. The EGGS provides a great example of this type of issue/content index for its quarterly.

Issue/content indexes should be freely available to anyone visiting the society’s web site. Societies may also wish to provide sample content so that potential members can assess the quality of the publication (which could lead to greater membership), and potential contributors have a good example of the publication’s style. Having indexes of the content of back issues can not only drive sales, but can encourage contributors to volunteer articles or transcriptions.

Many societies, particularly large ones, are now placing entire issues of their primary publication online in members only sections. This is a huge benefit to members, and can help a society retain a loyal membership base. Some societies offer members the option of receiving publications in an electronic format, thus reducing the cost of publication while maintaining a quality benefit. Still other societies are dividing member news and information about upcoming events into one publication, often in the form of an electronic newsletter, while publishing articles and transcriptions in a paper quarterly.

This sort of flexibility can help societies weather today’s fast-paced world where many members are short on both time and funds, and expect big returns on their investments into a society through dues, donations, and volunteering.

Conclusion

A society’s publications should encourage member participation, provide up-to-date information about society events, and provide quality content based on the society’s mission and members’ needs and interests. Juggling these tasks successfully takes a certain investment and commitment on the part of editors and society members, but producing a quality publication can yield many benefits to individual members and the society as a whole.

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4 Responses to “Perfecting Society Publications”

  1. What a fantastic post on the importance of society publications. The untold hours freely given by many editors can never be fully appreciated. Truly these publications are valuable resources for reaching out to members and prospective members. You offer many vital tips on making these resources even more valuable.

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