RootsTech 2014


Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, September 13, 2013

A bigger challenge

After spending a couple of sessions teaching new missionaries at the Mesa FamilySearch Library, I have come to the conclusion that increasing the percentage of participation in genealogy in all ages of our population faces the same challenge and it is bigger than even I anticipated. What is the challenge? It is the acquisition of technological and genealogical literacy presumed by the complex programs, online databases and online search engines that permeate genealogy today.

Lack of advanced computer skills is the new illiteracy. From time to time, I have come across adults in America who could not read or read at such a low level as to make reading painful, but that issue is minor compared to the much greater challenge of lack of basic computer skills. There are those that foresee class divisions in the future arising due to computer availability, but those are already appearing. What I feel is a more serious and far reaching issue is the class divisions that will arise as a result of the varying levels of computer literacy. What is more interesting about this phenomena is that the existing class structure based on economic and educational abilities may be seriously realigned and disrupted, not by social revolutions or by mere access to computers, but more seriously by the level of computer literacy.

There is a general assumption that all young people are "computer literate" because of their access to cell phones, video games and online social networking. However, an interesting study from Stanford University points out some rather thought provoking conclusions. The article, entitled Understanding Technology Choices and Values through Social Class, concludes in part:
While both groups owned similar technologies, the ways in which they used them differed. Middle-class parents ritualized family phone calls, but working-class parents held family movie nights and other co-located events. While middle-class families restricted television and computer use, working-class families promoted technology (at times enthusiastically) to their children, in part because they wanted to be sure their children had more opportunities than they did growing up, and in part because technologies like mobile phones provided conveniences or family time. Middle-class parents bristled at the idea of giving their children mobile phones before middle school, while working-class parents welcomed it.
It is not surprising to me that these types of unexpected differences are beginning to appear. But even though I am without the benefit of a formal study, nevertheless, I do have a number of observations some of which I have expressed in the past with differing responses from my readers.

Genealogy as it is implemented today depends almost entirely on online and local program interaction. Anyone wishing to do genealogy at any serious level is absolutely required to confront some level of technology. An interesting example of this facet of genealogy is the fact that new missionaries at the Mesa FamilySearch Library are taught classes on and about computer programs. Books and what you might term traditional methods of practicing genealogy are hardly mentioned and not at all encouraged. There is nothing at all wrong with this method of teaching, it merely reflects the reality of our Internet and computer based methods of communication. What is not so evident, except in day to day contact with all age and socioeconomic levels is that the ability to effectively acquire and use computer skills is one of the most serious limiting factors in integrating new prospective genealogists.

As observed by the Stanford study above:
The striking differences we discovered between these groups suggest that analysis along socioeconomic lines – sympathetic but meticulous and with eyes wide open – is a fruitful avenue for future exploration in human-computer interaction and design. In particular, without the kind of deep understanding of different communities that one can obtain through ethnographic work, and despite an active awareness of the field of usercentered design over the last thirty-plus years, many of us find ourselves designing for those most like ourselves – largely middle-class professionals with middle-class values – or we may make incorrect assumptions based on stereotypes about those who are different. Explicitly attending to what differences there are, acknowledging the similarities, and actively and sympathetically trying to make sense of the whole picture is the best way to overcome these obstacles.
These same observations reflect the distinct implied issues with the acquisition of genealogically related technology skills. The large online database programs presuppose a certain level of interest in genealogy and vastly different level of interest in technology. I have often observed that people use the online database programs for acquiring a family tree, but seldom use the facilities of the same programs to add sources or to verify the information contained in their acquired family trees. I have come to believe that this is a manifestation of a much deeper issue, that of computer and genealogical literacy rather than a simple problem in educating people about the importance of sources.

It is true that there are age differences reflected in initial acquisition of some computer skills, but the challenge of becoming computer literate and then transferring that literacy to genealogical literacy are not so easily dismissed. Information literacy is defined as the ability to collect, evaluate, assemble, reflect upon, and use information in order to learn and inform problem-solving and decision making. See The Technology Ownership and Information Acquisition Habits of HBCU Freshmen As an extension of this definition, genealogical technology literacy is the ability to use those same tools to acquire genealogically relevant information about your family. As genealogists, our desire to incorporate more people is limited by our ability to confront the societal challenges with not just acquiring basic computer skills, but also acquiring computer or technological literacy and genealogical literacy.


  1. Thanks for the post on " A bigger challenge."


  2. Why is such homage paid to THE COMPUTER? Computer skill does not a genealogist make. Some of the older members of my ward know how to use a computer, but they are name gatherers and braggarts and have clogged the databases with junk data. It's like a 10-year-old who thinks all it takes is pushing the gas pedal to drive a car. The elderly may know how to use a computer, but they are clueless about genealogy.

    1. My dear friend Anonymous,
      Apparently you did not fully read what I said. I said there are two different things needed: technological literacy and genealogical literacy. The fact that your Ward members have technological literacy does not mean they also possess genealogical literacy.

  3. Dear James Tanner,

    You are absolutely right. I did not fully read what you said, so I re-read it. Thank you for the correction. I've been doing the real kind of research for so long, maybe I've become narrow-minded! Thank you again.

  4. hi..Im student from Informatics engineering, this article is very informative, thanks for sharing :)