Thursday, July 24, 2014

How Should Genealogy Societies Nurture Beginners?

At our relatively small genealogical society here in Chula Vista, we often get "walk-in" people to a meeting who thinks they want to start doing genealogical research.

There have been several recent "beginners" this year who have attended a society meeting.  Here is a brief description of three of them:

1)  A lady came to one of the monthly programs, and joined the society immediately.  She then attended every meeting over the next six months - the monthly program, the monthly research group, the monthly computer group, etc.  She was computer literate and learned some of the basic research techniques by asking questions and working on them.  She grasped the concept of evidence and doing systematic research, and was able to go back three or four generations relatively quickly using census records and vital record indexes.  She attended the free day of Jamboree in early June, especially the Beginner's class and exhibit hall, and felt a bit overwhelmed by all of the information and people involved.  But she works at learning more and is making solid progress, and is now on the Board of Directors because she is energetic, smart and fun to be around.

2)  Another lady came to the monthly Research Group in late 2013, and then recently came to the Computer Group.  She had a specific goal - to find out if her husband is related to a New Hampshire colonial governor - and had a start on a pedigree chart from a relative.  I tried to help her one-on-one, and we were able to find her husband's grandfather and two more generations back in the census records before time ran out.  I promised to send her images of the census records we had found on  She had some problems manipulating the mouse and some vision problems with the screen.  She was very eager, and seemed to absorb my advice about records, websites, being careful with online data, etc.  I fear that I overwhelmed her with all of the details I offered.  She may join the society soon.

3)  For about a year, one of our seasoned members has been hosting a small (3 to 5 persons) group every week in a small room at the library.  Some of the attendees were "stuck" in their research, and needed some suggestions to continue.  Another was relatively new and didn't have computer access, is gradually finding ancestral records online at the library, but then bought a new computer and is still struggling with Windows 8.  Another was just beginning his research, but had good computer and research skills.  All of them have thrived in this small group environment and have become friends, sharing family stories, food and genealogy.

Here are my thoughts about how beginners come into the present state of genealogical research:

1)  Beginners come to a genealogy society with some skill sets - some are computer literate, some do not, or are fearful, and everything in between.  The computer literate folks can step into the online genealogy world and not be totally overwhelmed - in fact, they get really excited.  The ones who are not computer ept really struggle and often drop away. This is a significant issue because so much of what we do in research now is online.  Online research can happen very fast - you can find five or more generations in an hour and think that it must be correct "because it's on the internet."  I joke that "we can make mistakes a lot faster than we used to."

It seems to me that we really need two genealogy education tracks for beginners:

a)  We need one track for the computer literate who can find online education (webinars, YouTube videos, presentations, learning courses) and online genealogical records (web pages, family trees, record collections, etc.).  We don't want to stifle their enthusiasm, but they need more than what they can find online.  How do they learn the "basics" of genealogical research - the research process, the systematic collection of home, published and vital records, and using society membership for education and social interactions (including research help and advice)?

b)  The second track, for those not comfortable with the computer,  needs to first emphasize the family/home resources (papers, Bibles, vital records, etc.), and library resources (including "how to" books, pedigree and family group sheets, etc.), and obtaining more of them through correspondence and visits to record archives.  They need to be encouraged to join a local genealogical society for education and social activities, and to attend computer literacy classes so that they can find more records for their ancestral families in online record collections and perhaps create a family tree online or in a software program.

2)  Only doing research online really bypasses a lot of the actual "genealogy learning process." advertises "you don't even have to know what you're looking for."  Is this really wise?

When I started in 1988, I went to the local libraries and found surname and locality books and periodical articles that provided incremental information about my ancestral families.  I photocopied them, brought them home, studied them, filled in family group sheets and pedigree charts, etc.  I also borrowed or bought some library books on "how to" do genealogy research.  This was very much a "slow cooking learning process" enriched by what I found each week on my library visits.  It wasn't long before I found the local Family History Center and was reading microfilms and microfiche and making real progress in my research.

Today, a computer literate person with no research skills can get instant ancestral gratification by creating (or grafting onto) an online tree, adding a few ancestors, and then following the green leaf "Hints" offered in an Ancestry Member Tree (or MyHeritage Record Matches, or FamilySearch Record Hints).  Just attach them (after all, "they must be right, the companies claim a high accuracy rate"), and s/he thinks s/he has done genealogical research and is finished.  Whew, it only took a week!  

My point is that the "Genealogy Research Process" was very deliberative 25 years ago, and was kind of burned into my memory "hard drive" by repetition and assimilation over weeks or months. I had to wait for the gratification of a new record or relationship discovery.

Today, with an emphasis on an online learning process, the emphasis seems to be on finding records online, and adding them to your family tree (which requires another learning curve).  It's more like "flash memory" that might be forgotten in a week or a month.

3)  I've seen quotes that "it takes 10,000 hours of education and experience in order to become an expert in a subject."  I think that is fairly accurate - it took me at least five years of full-time employment to become competent in aerospace engineering.  I started my genealogy research in 1988, but devoted only about 10 to 20 hours a week to it until 2002 due to other interests and work.  At present, I feel that I am competent in some research areas and that "I know what I don't know" (e.g.,  Irish, German, and archival records).

Every person is at a different place in their genealogy research education and experience.  In our early years, we "don't know what we don't know."  Those that are not computer ept are missing out on many online record collections that are not accessible except at a distant repository.  Many computer ept researchers don't bother with proper methodology or repository research.  To be a "complete genealogist," every researcher needs to understand proper methodology and be aware of and use all available resources in order to perform competent research.

4)  It is obvious to me that you cannot stick a beginner with poor computer skills into the first track with computer ept persons.  They will only get frustrated, and perhaps quit.  Likewise, forcing a computer ept person to take a basic genealogy course with no computer content ("it's boring!") will result in frustration and they may quit.

We've heard the "Next Generation" of genealogists say that pedigree charts and family group sheets are boring and that young people are so fascinated by all things technical and social that we need to hook them up with programs that provide instant gratification - apps, trees, record hints, photos, stories, etc.  Are we satisfied to let them be "flash dance" genealogists, or do we want them to be "complete genealogists"?

How do we get them involved in more than online research or family tree manipulation?  Of course, some of them will become "complete genealogists" and contribute to the genealogy industry - some of them already are.

5)  What works best? Are "Beginners classes" the best way to educate true beginner researchers?  Perhaps two tracks of classes would work well - all are invited, but the "basics," "online" and "repository" research could be introduced in alternating classes over, say, a two-month period of time.  There needs to be enough "hands-on" time, and homework, for the students to learn the basics of genealogical research.

A regular one-on-one time, or small group, with a seasoned researcher answering the beginner's questions, and perhaps demonstrating techniques, seems to work pretty well.

There also need to be regularly scheduled genealogy society programs to keep them encouraged, learning, and opportunities to seek help as they progress.

So - the question is:  How Should a Genealogy Society Nurture or Help Beginners?  What are your thoughts?  What activities can really help beginners learn?  What works for your society?

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Copyright (c) 2014, Randall J. Seaver


Catching Time Genealogy said...

Randy, your points are right on the money and every society should take your advice.

Nadine_Feldman said...

I'm a newbie with strong computer skills. I appreciate all your comments, and I agree that having classes that match people with their computer aptitude is smart. Our local genealogical society is having a class on using Word -- I wouldn't be interested in that, but I went to a recent meeting where I learned a LOT that I can use.

Recently, while looking at some hints, I realized that several families had picked up the same error -- a man who died several years before his "daughter" was born.

I think the Internet, even with its limitations, will "save" genealogy. If I would have started with going to the library, I doubt I would have developed an interest. Online, I have found some wonderful resources that have only made me more curious. NOW, I want to know more about what's beyond the online search. That led me to our local society, and I attended my first meeting last week.

The ease of online research will certainly make for some bad genealogists -- but I think we will always have a certain segment of the population with a love of research, for whom the Internet opens a door into a fascinating and wonderful world.

Melissa Barker said...

Randy, I agree 100% with what you said. I have been doing genealogy research for almost 30 years now and the past 8 of those years I have been a professional genealogist, speaker and teacher. I teach a free genealogy class at my local library and I have "newbies" come to my classes every month. I teach these new students of genealogy research to not rely totally on online resources and information but to venture out into the "real world" and visit an archives, library or courthouse. Since I am also my local county archivist, I know that there are tons of records not online or even indexed that are just waiting for researchers to discover. The internet is a great resource but we have to put it in perspective to the whole world of genealogy research.

Old Bones Search said...

Randy, I could have written this...but you've said it better than I could have! We seem to be traveling parallel paths: relatively small society (120+ paid members with an average of 45 per monthly meeting in attendance), computer labs with one-on-one instruction, teaching basic computer skills when necessary, coaching non-internet research strategies..... My eye is on growth with a younger set. Not high school students (but I wouldn't discourage them) but a generation that is computer literate and has the requisite energy and enthusiasm to "do the work." Other than our Western Massachusetts Genealogical Society, we've grown a following at the Chicopee Public Library through beginner's classes and some intermediate classes both lecture style and computer lab style. We've managed to get the Chicopee Library designated as a Family History Center. All the micromedia from the Ludlow LDS Church has been transferred there. That will bring us even more "traffic". It's looking pretty good!

Lee said...

I love delving into my family's past. I belong to both the Pima County Genealogy Society and the Southern Arizona Jewish Genealogy Society. I'm not a beginner but I also have almost no experience doing anything other than online research. Most beginners I encounter want to know more about their family's history. They don't want to become genealogists. It's hard enough doing research properly and thoroughly. Maybe we unnecessarily complicate the introduction of beginners to the joy of family history research by subtly suggesting they start a genealogist track. There's a reason Family History Centers aren't called Genealogy Centers.