As President of the Roots Users Group of Arlington, VA (RUG), I have often been asked by people who say that because of the distance involved they cannot attend the meetings of the RUG, which are held in Arlington, VA if they could start a users group in their area.
Most of these encounters have been very casual -- at some meeting or seminar or other, or in a brief phone conversation. I am not sure that I have always given the same considered response to each person who has contacted me and have concluded that I might have served them better if I had taken the time to write down some useful ideas which have come into my head as the result of my experience with the formation of the RUG of Arlington, VA.
Sometimes, I have provided copies of by-laws and articles of incorporation to help them get started. In one case, I am happy to say that I learned the woman who had obtained a set of RUG documentation had made it available to a group of over 100 people who were holding an organizational meeting in the Bay Area near San Francisco, CA to start up a Roots Users Group there and indications are that they will be modeling their group after the Arlington RUG.
If you have the patience to read through the rest of this article you will quickly realize that I was far from a driving force in the formation of the Arlington RUG. I got into the game long after others had started things rolling but I happened to be willing to carry it through.
I believe that by recounting the history of how the Arlington RUG came into existence, I may save someone else a great deal of work and/or give someone who has been reluctant to undertake to start a users group, the courage to take the plunge.
In April of 1987, the Computer Interest Group of the National Genealogical Society (NGS/CIG), under the leadership of Barbara Clawson, held a half-day seminar on the use of the computer as a tool for genealogical research, record keeping, and publishing at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center in Arlington, VA. At this seminar, rump sessions were held for participants who used each of the major genealogical software programs, i.e., Personal Ancestry File (PAF), Roots II, etc. Some of these groups, such as PAF, were already organized into a users group and others, such as Roots II, were not. At the Roots II rump session, a list of people who used the Roots II software and would be interested in forming a users group was compiled. It was not until Howard Nurse, the President of COMMSOFT, INC., the producer of Roots II, and Barbara Clawson, then Chairman of the NGS/CIG, asked Gil Corwin at the NGS Conference in the States at Biloxi MS in the Spring of 1988 to look into forming a Roots Users Group in the Washington, DC area that any progress was made. Between the time of the 1987 seminar and the 1988 NGS conference, Bill Higgins had been quietly adding names to the list of people who had said they were interested in forming a users group. When Gil and Ginny Corwin, with the help of Barbara Clawson, Jim Pflueger, and Bill Higgins, set up an organizational meeting for 26 July 1988, Bill volunteered to call the over 80 people on the list to invite them to the meeting.
RUG ORGANIZATIONAL MEETING
By a very happy circumstance, during the time people were being called, COMMSOFT, INC. began shipping the much more sophisticated ROOTS III which replaced Roots II, and people realized that they would need help in learning its many features. These soon included three advanced utility programs which worked with Roots II and greatly increased its power - and complexity. As a result, the organizational meeting was very well attended. The meeting demonstrated that there was more than enough interest to form a users group and enough interested people to make it work. This meeting also established what kind of organization was needed and established the tone of future meetings. It was clear from the start that people wanted "hands-on," "how to" type meetings, with ample opportunity for one-on-one Q & A sessions which would result in the sharing of learned skills in the fields of both genealogy and computers and computer software. The emphasis, of course, would be on how to use the Roots III software to best advantage to enhance individual genealogical research, but people were also interested in how to use word processors, spreadsheets, and database software to get the most out of their computers for genealogical research, record keeping, and publishing.
The single most important outcome of this meeting was that about a dozen people agreed to form a leadership team which would meet several times at Gil and Ginny's house to work details of the structure and operations of the organization. Everything from the organization's name, to by-laws, articles of incorporation, the amount of dues to be paid, the number and titles of officers, a slate of nominees for offices, and a schedule of workshops and monthly meetings programs were worked out by 3 & 4 person teams which had their work approved by the full leadership team before anything was submitted to the membership for approval.
It was decided to start monthly meetings immediately while this organizational work was going on in the background. By another fortunate circumstance, Howard Nurse was on the East Coast at the time of the August 1988 meeting and Gil Corwin and Barbara Clawson invited him to get things going by being the principal speaker at that meeting. As a result of publicity by COMMSOFT, INC., a list of all Roots III owners in the Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia areas, provided by COMMSOFT, INC. (we specified the ZIP Codes we wanted) and more phone calls by members of the leadership team, over 120 people showed up for this meeting and the RUG was up and running. Howard's appearance at the August meeting was the catalyst which made the RUG a really viable organization. Prospective members felt that they would be joining a group which had access to COMMSOFT when it was needed and that [they] would be getting help from the horse's mouth. At the September meeting of the RUG, a three-member panel discussed the differences between Roots II and Roots III. At the October meeting, the Articles of Incorporation and By-laws were approved by the membership and a slate of officers was presented to them. At the November meeting, a slate of officers presented by the leadership team was elected and the amount of annual dues proposed by the officers ($10 per annum) was approved by the membership. Beginning in January 1989, a schedule of monthly "hands-on" workshops/demonstrations, which were held on the second Saturday afternoon of each month, was undertaken to supplement the programs which were presented at the monthly meetings, which were held on the fourth Tuesday of each month. It was not until the March/April 1989 time frame that we were able to publish anything even remotely resembling a RUG Newsletter.
I am not sure that I have learned all of the lessons I should have as a result of these experiences, but here are a few rules that I think any new users group should consider:
1. Don't wait for something to happen - If you want to start a group, do it. Contact a few friends who have the software, get a list from the vendor of the people in your area who own the software, set up a time and place for a meeting, and call them to invite them to attend. Once Gil Corwin was asked to start a ROOTS users group he contacted a few friends and the leadership evolved naturally.
2. Concentrate initially on a small "leadership team" to work out the details - Most of the membership does not care about articles of incorporation or by-laws, or meeting schedules or programs. Our small group, the membership of which has changed constantly, worked out the details and presented them to the members for approval. People do not want to sit through long business meetings. Our business meetings don't exceed 15 minutes, sometimes 10 minutes and are devoted mostly to announcements and the treasurer's report.
3. Don't reinvent the wheel - We have heard this hundreds of times but if we find out from other groups what their articles of incorporation and/or by-laws look like and if they will suffice, use them as they are. Don't start with a blank sheet of paper and waste time inventing the rules of operation. If it works for other groups, it will probably work for yours.
4. Decide these basic questions before you begin:
Will the group be incorporated? Will it be local, regional, or national in scope? Will it be independent or affiliated with some other group? Will the group publish a newsletter? Will the group operate a RBBS? [Ed.Note: Today, an appropriate question might be "Will the group have a website?"] Will dues be charged? and if so how much? and for what period of time?
The RUG of Arlington, VA decided to be incorporated as a "Not-for-Profit" corporation under the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia to protect the interests of both the members and the officers and thus it followed logically that we not be affiliated with any other organization -- including COMMSOFT, INC. We decided that we wanted primarily to serve members in and around the Washington, DC area. However, after several months, we realized that approximately 50% of our members could not attend our meetings because of time and distance factors so we decided to keep contact with them through our newsletter. (We still have people who will drive 2 to 3 hours to get to a meeting for a specific presentation.) We now send our newsletter to over 275 members in 17 states and the District of Columbia, to 15 local genealogy-related libraries, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the National Society of the DAR Library. [Ed.Note: This was in August 1990; as of October 2002, we have over 700 members in 49 states and 5 foreign countries.]
5. Keep dues to a minimum - We can all agree on this. The RUG Newsletter takes about 70 cents from every dollar we collect so there is not much money for anything else [Ed.Note: as of August 1990]. Finding a free meeting room is essential to keep costs down. Being incorporated as a "Not-for-Profit" corporation under the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia saves us $90 per month which we would otherwise have to pay the County of Arlington for the use of a meeting room in one of their schools). [Ed.Note: This was in August 1990; as of October 2002, we have been meeting about two years in the Washington Gas Company's facilities for free.]
6. Go slow on the Newsletter - It is not a given that each group should publish a newsletter. If you are a closely knit group serving a small geographical area, a newsletter will probably not be necessary. In the case of the Arlington RUG, we found we had to use a newsletter because we could not afford the long distance phone calls to members who could not attend our meetings regularly. Once started, the newsletter creates great exposure for the organization and increases membership. I would guess that our only contact with around 150 of our over 200 members [Ed.Note: This was true in August 1990] is through the RUG Newsletter. If you start a newsletter, contact other similar user groups and set up agreements to exchange your articles with theirs. This way, a nice stockpile of good articles can be built up which will make it easier to meet publication deadlines. A nice format and good printing job is desirable but it is more important that it contain good articles for the novices such as "how to" and "did you know" type articles which the members can put in a notebook and refer to again and again to help them get the most out of their software and computers.
7. Establish a "Tutors" network - We have found that the novice or intermediate user of the genealogical program is the one who wants help and when he or she does, it is immediate. I think the greatest service which the RUG of Arlington provides is the list of "tutors" which is updated and published quarterly in the newsletter. These 20 or so people have agreed to be called by other members to help when help is needed. Both parties usually turn on their computers to the same place in the program and work out the problem together as they watch the same menus/commands on their separate screens.
8. Rely on your members for presenters - You will be surprised at how much talent exists in your group if you ask members to make presentations on a specific feature of the software for each workshop or program and count on a dialogue with other members to bring out points which otherwise might be passed over. We have used only a few guest speakers because these have usually been renowned genealogists who unfortunately require a stipend.
9. Constantly keen the Novices in Mind - These are the people who are crying for help. As they build up their confidence, they will gradually leave because "they don't need to come anymore." But you will be surprised how many of them will keep coming as long as the workshops and programs are real world practical examples of how to use the software to best advantage. Time and time again a person who has used the program for up to 18 months will be heard to say at one of the programs, "I didn't know you could do that!"
10. Keep a good mix of Hardware, Software and Genealogy in Programs
- We all claim to be genealogists first and then second, people who use
computers to organize and store data, to analyze data and to do research
in the hope that someday we will publish our family genealogy in one form
This completes the article proper except for his offering of copies of the by-laws, articles of incorporation, a sample newsletter and a sample program schedule. The RUG's by-laws can be found on our web site as well as instructions for obtaining copies of our newsletters (which include program listings). Anyone wanting a copy of the Articles of Incorporation may write to the the current President, whose name and email address is also found on the RUG web site at http://www.rootsusers.org/ .
* John Wiegard was the first President of our RUG, and served for many years in one capacity or another. He passed away in 1997.