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

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Raising the Bar

I had a singular experience yesterday helping a patron at the Mesa Family History Center. The patron had little or no understanding of genealogy, absolutely no computer skills, and in fact, did not own a computer. She came in with a stack of paper and kept shuffling through the stack for names and dates but had no idea what she was looking for. After about two hours we were finally able to get her registered in and make some slight headway, although she did not have the typing skills necessary to enter her own login and password. But this post is not about her or her lack of experience, per se. It is about the increasingly complex requirements of technology and its impact on genealogy in general.

Yesterday's patron has virtually no possible chance to do any meaningful research to extend her family lines. No matter what her desire, unless she relies on someone with more skills, she is essentially locked out of pursuing her research. What are those factors that enable genealogical research? Let me use the 1940 U.S. Census as an example.

Right off the bat, a hypothetical researcher in the 1940 U.S. Census would have to be aware of the existence of the U.S. Census. As practicing genealogists, we take for granted the whole concept of a census. To us, the introduction of another ten years of U.S. Census is big news. But I can assure you it is not "big news" out there in the general media. So even if you are one of those people who answer surveys and say you "have an interest in learning about your family's history," you may not have enough interest to know that censuses exist except in general terms. If you think the 1940 U.S. Census is big news, check out the latest stream of news on the Google News page. Do you find any mention of the U.S. Census without doing a search? In fact, I did a search for "census" on the Google News page and only came up with one article about the Census release.

But beyond an awareness of the 1940 U.S. Census, what will you or anyone have to know and do to even gain access to the information? Unless you have some pretty extensive computer and research skills you will not likely be sitting on the computer trying to find your family in the Census next week.

Doing genealogy is hardly a mainstream activity, but at the same time, due to technological changes this rather obscure activity is becoming even harder for people to enter. Yesterday's patron is pro-typical of the constantly raising skills level needed to pursue any activity, such as genealogy, where technological skills are impacting that activity in a direct way.

My Great-grandmother amassed a huge amount of genealogical research basically using paper and pencils or pens but she also happened to live only one or two blocks from the Genealogical Society of Utah's collection, now known as the Salt Lake Family History Library. If she were to visit the Library today, she would find much of the information only available to those with at least rudimentary computer skills. For example, rather than an paper card catalog in drawers, the only catalog is online on computers. My initial point is that technology has "raised the bar" to entry into the world of information. If you do not possess some threshold of computer skills, you will not likely even be aware of where to go and what is happening in genealogical research today and the amount of information and the skills you need is constantly increasing.

How long did it take you to acquire your computer skills? I began my "training" with a typing class in high school (one of the very few high schools classes that had any real world benefit to my life). So what happens to people who never learn any keyboarding skills? They are essentially locked out of the world of genealogy as we know it today until they acquire some level of competence.

What about the cost of entering the world of genealogy? What does it cost you for your Internet connection? How about the cost of your cell phone, your iPad, your computer? Most of the world's population can only dream of having instant and constant access to these basic genealogical tools.

What about your ability to read and write? Yesterday's patron could not easily write by hand her own name. How far can she go in genealogy with no hand writing skills and no keyboarding skills? This opens up the whole issue of whether or not our school systems are adequately preparing students to exist in a technologically sophisticated society? But my observation today is limited to the fact that the technological shift of documents to electronic sources has increased the skills necessary to do genealogical research. So as genealogists maybe we should be teaching computer skills?


  1. A very pertinent post James. Technology is fantastic for those who can use it but increasingly a barrier for parts of the population, not just genealogists.

  2. In Allegheny County (Pittsburgh area) the local Community College has lot of computer classes designed for the "older" users.

    Being retired myself I use the computer, research and do repairs, problem solve and install software. I think they just need some encouragement and basic education.

  3. When I served as a Family Search missionary on Temple Square with my husband,the main focus of my 'training' was to teach me how to use the various computer resources available. Then to teach me how to help other people learn to use them too. I am from a generation that grew up with computers as a required part of life from a very young age. My children already know as much about computers as I likely did when I graduated high school. They are prepared for that entry gate into genealogy, but I worry for the folks like my mom that is a complete technophob! It is quite hard for her to bravely take some beginning steps into the realm of genealogical research. Interesting post (as usual). This is not something I have thought much about, but I think now that I should.

  4. I found this quite disturbing. I've been involved with computers since the early 1960's but still remember how to do research without one (although I wouldn't want to). Our City library system has computer classes for the total technophobe and rank beginner in both English and Spanish. They still require some very rudimentary typing or keyboarding skills and would possibly be too advanced for your patron. These classes, however, focus on email, Word and Excel, all of which are useful for the beginning genealogist but don't give the beginner a sense of accomplishing a little delving into their own family history. The city library system also has classes on Ancestry, FamilySearch, etc but to get anything out of this one must be more familiar with a computer than your patron may possibly be able to manage. Our local genealogy society also has beginner classes (well attended) and some program like this would be helpful for you patron.

    How to reach someone with the interest and few skills is quite a problem. The library system advertises all of its programs in a monthly newsletter (once again, bilingual) but if someone like your patron doesn't use the library they wouldn't know of these resources.