It is Saturday morning. I’m writing this from the Dorset Family History fair, held at Parkstone School, Poole. The event does not officially open for another thirty minutes, but already there are people waiting to get in. The stallholders are getting set up – family history societies, publishers, technology providers – and the volunteers at the research centre are waiting with nervous excitement. The anticipation, as last minute preparations are carried out, is palpable.

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It is rare that I get a chance to sample the behind-the-scenes work that goes into setting up an event or show such as this. My role is to wander in, give a talk or two, and wander off afterwards. I perhaps don’t give enough thought to the months of preparation that goes into the planning and execution, as well as the logistics that make the day itself something to be dreaded. A good idea six months beforehand suddenly becomes all too real. One of the volunteers confides that they are looking forward to the end of the day, when they can get a good night’s sleep. I bet! They have been working tirelessly since I arrived, and no doubt will continue to help people throughout the day.

Everyone helping is a volunteer from the family history society. This is their chance to meet the public – to extol the virtues of genealogy to familiar faces and potential new recruits alike. Visitors are welcomed with a cheerful greeting, and there are smiles all round. Everyone is happy.

This is real genealogy. We can obviously access millions of records online, but holding an event where people can ask questions, seek help, meet experts, locate data not available on the internet, and of course see the benefits of signing up to the family history society is the lifeblood of our sector. It also is a chance for libraries and archives to engage with their constituents, to ask questions as well as provide advice and find out exactly what people want and expect from their local information services.

It will be impossible to take an event like this for granted again, and I urge you to think about what you can do to help when a similar venture is suggested by your society.

Another eye-opener came the previous evening, when I talked to about 200 members of the Banstead History Centre, Surrey. It was a fantastic gathering, showcasing many of the local projects that included schools and education at the heart of their activities, not necessarily promoting genealogy as such but highlighting the importance of local heritage and community collaboration. There is a clear model for other areas and groups to follow – the fusion of collaborative effort that benefits all interests and backgrounds. I look forward to hearing from other similar groups around the country – please let me know if there’s a general-purpose history group near you!

Cheers

Nick

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