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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Digital Literacy and Genealogy

According to the American Library Association, digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills. Further, a digitally literate person:
  • Possesses the variety of skills – technical and cognitive – required to find, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information in a wide variety of formats;
  • Is able to use diverse technologies appropriately and effectively to retrieve information, interpret results, and judge the quality of that information; 
  • Understands the relationship between technology, life-long learning, personal privacy, and stewardship of information;
  • Uses these skills and the appropriate technology to communicate and collaborate with peers, colleagues, family, and on occasion, the general public; and
  • Uses these skills to actively participate in civic society and contribute to a vibrant, informed, and engaged community. See more at:
After reading this definition, I began to wonder if I am digitally literate. One thing is apparent, you could apply the need for digital literacy almost exactly to the needs of modern genealogists. Genealogists must continually employ digital skills to acquire documents that are still mired in paper. In a real sense, we live in two opposing and very complicated worlds. On one hand we must be competent in extracting information from paper-based records while at the same time employ the latest digital information in all of its formats. 

I find this statement from a Pew Research Center article cited as follows very interesting.

Purcell, Kristen, Lee Rainie, Alan Heaps, Judy Buchanan, Linda Friedrich, Am, a Jacklin, Clara Chen, and Kathryn Zickuhr. “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, November 1, 2012.

Here is the quote:
The internet has changed the very meaning of “research” Perhaps the greatest impact this group of teachers sees today’s digital environment having on student research habits is the degree to which it has changed the very nature of “research” and what it means to “do research.” Teachers and students alike report that for today’s students, “research” means “Googling.” As a result, some teachers report that for their students “doing research” has shifted from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment.
I would certainly not limit this observation to "teens." One of the findings of the Pew Research Center Survey is that only 12% of students (I would include most genealogists today) doing research would use printed books other than textbooks. This corresponds directly with my own observations of the use of books in Family History Centers and libraries.

The biggest barrier to research observed by teachers during this survey involves lack of ability to assess the reliability of online information. Does this sound familiar to those of us who have to evaluate the information present in the multitude of online family trees? One of the most common issues with the incorporation of information into online family trees by users is the lack of evaluation of that information. This lack of evaluation skills is coupled with a generation that is easily distracted and with short attention spans.

Genealogists find themselves embroiled in era of radical change. Older genealogists cling to the familiar methods evolved, in some cases, over a lifetime of research. While at the same time, we struggle to accommodate a generation that demands instant gratification. Some time ago, I submitted several proposals to present at a well known annual genealogy conference. All of my proposals were rejected with the comment that they were too "technical" and more suited for a venue such as "RootsTech." We have apparently created a division between "traditional" genealogical subjects and those involving technology and we now have conferences where it is apparently inappropriate to mention technological issues and where the focus is on developing more traditional skills. I am sorry if I interpret the word "traditional" when used in this sense as the equivalent of "retrograde."

We have genealogists who, by their lack of technical skills or digital literacy, are essentially shut out of the advantages of the availability of online resources. On the other hand, there are genealogists who intentionally shut themselves off from technology for a variety of reasons but mainly because their own skill sets are threatened. Because, after all, they are the ones who "know" how to do genealogy.

There are also those in the genealogical community that would marginalize "genealogists" as a whole as irrelevant to the more modern and less intensively evaluative methodologies. These individuals would focus entirely on the ease of attaching a search engine generated record hint while at the same time ignoring the need to carefully evaluate whether or not the information produced by the technology really applies.

Melding digital literacy with traditional research skills is the real challenge of genealogy today. Those who would broaden the base of genealogy (read family history) to include younger participants will have to face the fact that the entire modern culture is focused on instant gratification and as those of us who have been researching for years understand, the terms genealogy and "instant" do not go well together.

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