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

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Genealogy vs. The Youth

One of recurring themes of today's genealogical community is the idea of involving the youth in genealogy. Whether done under the guise of family history or some other activity, the goal is to get the youth interested in doing genealogical research. However, most of the programs I have seen are aimed more at motivation than acquiring the skills necessary to actually participate in genealogical research. In working with thousands of patrons at the Mesa FamilySearch Library over the past years, including many much younger than I am, I have found one of the major limiting factors for a successful genealogical experience is a lack of research skills. Motivation without knowing the methodology and without the skills to implement that methodology, leads to frustration.

At this point in my discussions of this subject, someone usually starts to contradict me with a story about some phenomenal youthful researcher who has found thousands of names. As they sometimes say, the exception proves the rule. There are people with these skills, old and young, there just aren't that many of them around.

This issue does not apply only to youth, but there are special challenges that usually remain unaddressed in the programs aimed at youthful potential genealogists. Whatever you call it, genealogy is a research intensive activity. Research skills are not easily acquired and are lacking in many young people today, even those who are already attending major universities. Back in 2011,  a series of studies were conducted at Illinois Wesleyan, DePaul University, and Northeastern Illinois University, and the University of Illinois’s Chicago and Springfield campuses. The study was called ERIAL or Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project. A report about the project entitled, "What Students Don't Know" stated,
At Illinois Wesleyan University, “The majority of students -- of all levels -- exhibited significant difficulties that ranged across nearly every aspect of the search process,” according to researchers there. They tended to overuse Google and misuse scholarly databases. They preferred simple database searches to other methods of discovery, but generally exhibited “a lack of understanding of search logic” that often foiled their attempts to find good sources.
Essentially, these students would have been considered to be "Internet saavy." The study was cited as exploding the "Myth of the Digital Native." The report states,
Only seven out of 30 students whom anthropologists observed at Illinois Wesleyan “conducted what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search,” wrote Duke and Andrew Asher, an anthropology professor at Bucknell University, whom the Illinois consortium called in to lead the project. 
Throughout the interviews, students mentioned Google 115 times -- more than twice as many times as any other database. The prevalence of Google in student research is well-documented, but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources. (For instance, limiting a search to news articles, or querying specific databases such as Google Book Search or Google Scholar.)
 As I stated above, this problem does not apply only to the youth. As I deal with genealogists and potential genealogists, young and old, I find that there is a tremendous need for education in basic research skills. I am not writing about basic genealogy skills, I am writing about basic computer-based research skills. The article goes on to state,
Duke and Asher said they were surprised by “the extent to which students appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school.” Even students who were high achievers in high school suffered from these deficiencies, Asher told Inside Higher Ed in an interview. 
In other words: Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.
The rest of the article goes on to describe the deficiencies observed. The students failed to ask the librarians for help and viewed them as "glorified ushers." Sometimes, that is what I think the younger patrons at the Mesa FamilySearch Library think about the missionaries and volunteers. The article also notes that whenever this subject is addressed "people get their backs up." I have found exactly the same response whenever I bring up this same subject.

One egregious example of the lack of research awareness is the commonly held belief that you can do "research" in an online family tree program. I find people searching through Family Tree and other online family tree programs that actually believe they are "researching their family." Unfortunately, the disconnect is so large that genealogists are not even aware of its existence. So how do you teach research skills? Yes, it is a learned skill and yes, it can be taught and learned.

In my next post I will discuss some of the ways we can enhance our own research skills and how those skills can be taught to others. If you don't thing this applies to you, either as a researcher or a teacher, then you need to read the article.

1 comment:

  1. Last week for a mutual activity I created a genealogy scavenger hunt for the young men and young women that required that they search for info on Family Search about famous or just interesting people. They learned how to do basic searches and read various types of documents. Those that finished early went on to find documents about their own ancestors. It was a huge success and the kids had fun doing it! It was so great to actually be able to teach them how to do genealogy, not just why they should. This is definitely the direction we should be going. I noticed that the Mesa family history center is starting some youth courses that look very promising. I wish lived closer so I could get my youth involved.