Sunday, 22 November 2020

How Zoom can help family history societies to survive and evolve

One of the results of the current coronavirus pandemic is that many family historians who have in the past given talks to family history societies are now doing so online. It's an eloquent situation, but it is one that has its pros and its cons. But it occurs to me that for every society that is beginning to get to grips with it as a solution to lockdown, there will be others undoubtedly still to take the leap, and so this short post is really just to provide a wee overview and some brief thoughts that might help groups to decide to go for it!

First, a brief description of Zoom from my forthcoming book, Sharing Your Family History Online:

ii) Zoom

Although established in 2011, California based Zoom Video Communications really came into its own during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, as a major free to access videoconferencing tool, not only for business use, but for families who were locked down. For children who were home schooling it was a handy means for teachers to share lessons, particularly when Zoom extended the free time limit for free basic sessions for schools, whilst for many families it had the added bonus of bringing together relatives through fun activities such as weekly quizzes.

The free Basic version of Zoom permits video conferencing calls of up to forty minutes for meetings involving three or more participants, to a maximum limit of one hundred, although a meeting link can be re-used upon the session's expiry to continue the conversation, if everyone signs in again. Subscription based options permit longer meetings up to 24 hours, with capacity for 100, 300, 500 or 1000 participants, dependant on the selected plan.

When hosting a webinar, you can share a Powerpoint presentation with your fellow participants, or demonstrate some other activity using your computer. You can also extend the reach for those who may wish to watch by streaming the session live on either Facebook or YouTube – in so doing, a live stream to either platform counts as a single attendee to your Zoom conference. A useful video guide from Zoom on how to do this is available on YouTube at Zoom sessions can also be recorded.


As a speaker, Zoom (and other platforms such as GoToWebinar and Facetime) has been a wonderful tool that has allowed me to continue to give presentations this year, including the replacement of two major overseas events in the US that had to be reconstructed virtually instead. As a platform it has its pros and cons – on the one hand, I can speak, but on the other, I now have to sit down throughout, and I like to move around when giving talks, and to see people as I am talking to them!

I have been struck by the number of groups in recent weeks who have told me that they had only just started with Zoom, in some cases with me or others as their first, or one of their first, speakers, and so it occurs to me there are many groups out there that are still to perhaps take the plunge and give it a go. So what might be the benefits - what's all the fuss? 

Some quick pointers!

  • Zoom sessions are a means to interact in a lockdown, to see each other face to face and to converse, something that many of us have been seriously missing!
  • Zoom sessions can go beyond the traditional family history meeting in the local library or museum. Overseas members can access meetings as easily as local members, although there may be some time zone issues – but talks can also be recorded and played back for members at more convenient times after the event, if stored in a members area, and with a speaker's consent. (Tea is not provided, but not everyone around the world drinks tea!)
  • Zoom hosted talks can also attract speakers from beyond the usual pastures – and no travel expenses are involved.
  • Societies can also carry out closed business sessions through Zoom, such as AGMs.
  • Not all attending Zoom presentations need to access them through Zoom itself – you can stream them live to Facebook or YouTube at the same time.

In terms of getting started, there is a small learning curve, but only in the sense that it is just a new thing, and there are many societies that have already taken the plunge, with a growing pool of expertise out there. It's really not that scary. Zoom is simply accessed through a desktop browser or by downloading an app. Once you register to attend a session, you click on a link in the email confirming your registration and open it in the browser or app, and then simply enable your camera mic and webcam with on screen controls (and you don't even need to do that if you simply want to just watch). You can also ask questions using an on screen text chat facility. As a speaker, you can be given the option to share your screen, to show a Powerpoint presentation, or perhaps to demonstrate a technique with a website. It's all very intuitive.

One of the most impressive stories I have heard about Zoom in recent months with regards to family history societies was that from Aberdeen and North East Scotland FHS which I ran last week ( The society is now encouraging the growth of localised Zoom meetings worldwide for groups in places such as Brisbane, Ontario and London, with local members who have connections to the society's patch. It struck me that this is a great way to encourage the growth of a society, and to bring in the diaspora more, many of whom in the past may simply have only experienced a society's journal as a member benefit – now you can collaborate online with other local members in your part of the world and to attend the same sessions as the parent branches. As an innovation it reminded me of the leap taken by some societies a few years back to offer digital versions of journals, as a means to get content out quicker and to save on production and postage costs – equally embracing the digital era and its opportunities.

Blended learning and blended teaching is now also a thing. My son is at home right now in self-isolation, after someone in his school year contracted Covid. Thankfully my son is fine, but from home his schooling has not been disrupted at all - he can still attend school every day using a digital conferencing platform, where he can watch the teacher in the classroom from his bedroom, and where he can also interact. This form of blended teaching, with some online attendees and some attendees at school in person, seems to me to be an approach that can equally be applied to a family history society once we get out of the pandemic, with talks given in local libraries and museums as before, but with attendees also able to drop in from around the world via Zoom. In some cases societies are also recording Zoom presentations and making them available in their online members areas afterwards for a few weeks, for those unable to attend on the night.

If you are interested in finding out more, there are plenty of other groups that have already taken the plunge, with a lot of accrued experience and if it is not already available, there could well be a good leadership opportunity for umbrella bodies such as SAFHS ( or the Family History Federation ( to provide some guidance to their member bodies on getting the best out of Zoom.

If you have yet to give Zoom a go, I hope you'll consider it, either as a society, or as an attendee - it offers a lot of potential. Good luck!

* Sharing Your Family History Online is out in January 2021 and is available to pre-order from Pen and Sword Family History at For a list of forthcoming talks I'm giving online, please consult my Diary page at


Pre-order my next book, Sharing Your Family History Online, at My book Tracing Your Scottish Family History on the Internet, at is also out, as are Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet (2nd ed) at and Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry Through Church and State Records at Further news published daily on The Scottish GENES Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.


  1. Chris Our local FH Society has been having combined zoom and live discussion group meetings for the last few months. Although we are not in lockdown, it certainly has been a boon for members who are at a distance or have health issues. It has been a bit of a learning curve but well worthwhile. I can see us doing so well into the future even after Covid is a distant memory.
    Qld Australia

    1. Hi Judy, yes I think Zoom is going to be the genealogy revolution that no-one quite foresaw!


  2. Chris - We at the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa recognized that our members were also missing the social aspect of the meetings, so in addition to our monthly presentations via Zoom, we have introduced bi-weekly "socials" on Wednesday evenings and Friday afternoons where our members can exchange news and discoveries.

    1. Yes, that's something I know some societies here have been doing also, for example Fife. Great to see such innovation!

  3. Hi Chris, Our club on the west coast of Canada has been using Zoom now for about 6 months. Interesting how some members simply refuse to participate if a meeting if is not face to face, but those of us who do use it are really finding it useful. We live in a small town, where getting a guest speaker is problematic - but not with zoom. Some of our senior members don't like driving (often 50 kms) to meetings at night and one moved to Montreal from here. All can now participate from home. We find brainstorming for solving brick walls very effective. Everyone who is participating obviously has internet so we can share screens as we try to resolve problems. Previously our meeting consisted more of just sharing what we were working on because the internet was spotty at our meeting location. Even when lockdowns are discontinued and things are back to "normal" I believe that many of us will go on meeting via Zoom rather or as a complement to "in person". Thanks for your great article.

    1. You're welcome, and I'm glad to hear it is of such a positive benefit to your club!