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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Genealogy and Information Literacy

Every time I go to the Brigham Young University Family History Library (many times a week) I see a sign for a University office entitled, "Information Literacy." As I began to notice the sign, I became more and more curious about this academic subject. What is information literacy? Of course, I could search the Internet for the answer and so I did. I immediately found a website for the Association of College and Research Libraries, a Division of the American Library Association with an article entitled, "Introduction to Information Literacy." Here I found the definition of Information Literacy:
Information Literacy is the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information.
The definition is expanded with a quote from the American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. The quote says:
“Ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning, because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand.”
This definition was extremely interesting to me because for the first time, I had a name and a concept for many of my observations over the years. I have often thought and written about the divide in genealogy between those who have the skills set forth in the description and those who have not acquired those skills. It is sometimes very helpful to know that the thing you are concerned about has a name and that there are people out there studying the issues. It is sort-of like learning that some physical condition you have is really a categorized illness.

I further found it profoundly interesting that the descriptions of observed problem applied so directly to genealogical research. Here is a further quote from the Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report back on January 10, 1989 in Washington, D.C. As you read this, think about the fact that this statement was made at a time when the Internet, as we know it today, was barely in its infancy.
No other change in American society has offered greater challenges than the emergence of the Information Age. Information is expanding at an unprecedented rate, and enormously rapid strides are being made in the technology for storing, organizing, and accessing the ever growing tidal wave of information. The combined effect of these factors is an increasingly fragmented information base---large components of which are only available to people with money and/or acceptable institutional affiliations.
This statement refers to the "ever growing tidal wave of information" at a time when they could not see what that would really mean.

Later on in the same article, there is an outline of the learning process faced by people in every instance of acquiring information:
  • knowing when they have a need for information
  • identifying information needed to address a given problem or issue
  • finding needed information and evaluating the information
  • organizing the information
  • using the information effectively to address the problem or issue at hand.
 This succinctly describes the issues I see genealogical researchers facing nearly every day. Here are some of my own rewriting of these processes in the context of genealogy:

  • Genealogical researchers copy information from existing family trees, accept unsupported conclusions from others and make invalid relational conclusion because they do not know that they have a need for information.
  • When confronted with a difficult family relationship, many genealogical researchers do not know how to identify the information the need to address a given problem or issue. In fact, they cannot recognize when an issue exists.
  • Many genealogical researchers do not know how to find needed information or how to evaluate that information once it is found. Note, finding and evaluating are two separate and important functions.
  • A considerable number of genealogists lack organizational skills and do not know how to adequately use the available genealogical database programs.
  • Even when given the proper information about a particular ancestral relationship, they reject the information because they do not know how to use it.

Of course observing a problem and solving it are also two distinct things. The problems I observe in the genealogical community have their roots in the challenges of society in general. Many genealogically related individuals seem to see that the problems faced by genealogists can be solved by resort to incorporating younger, more computer savvy, people into the genealogical community. That only makes sense if those younger people are informationally literate. Informational Literacy is not just a set of skills used to manipulate computers and similar devices such as smartphones, it is much more complicated than that. As I see it, the lack of Information Literacy among those involved in and promoting genealogy is not limited to any one age group. It is a much deeper reflection of our shallow educational system and the consequences of failing to challenge students in a way that fosters true learning. Preparing students to pass a standardized test is not going to develop Information Literacy.

Here is a final quote from the Association of College and Research Libraries, a Division of the American Library Association on the subject in another article entitled, "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education."
Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." 1 Information literacy also is increasingly important in the contemporary environment of rapid technological change and proliferating information resources. Because of the escalating complexity of this environment, individuals are faced with diverse, abundant information choices--in their academic studies, in the workplace, and in their personal lives. Information is available through libraries, community resources, special interest organizations, media, and the Internet--and increasingly, information comes to individuals in unfiltered formats, raising questions about its authenticity, validity, and reliability. In addition, information is available through multiple media, including graphical, aural, and textual, and these pose new challenges for individuals in evaluating and understanding it. The uncertain quality and expanding quantity of information pose large challenges for society. The sheer abundance of information will not in itself create a more informed citizenry without a complementary cluster of abilities necessary to use information effectively.
Try substituting the word "genealogists" for the word "individuals" and "citizenry" see what I mean.


  1. This is a long, but entirely interesting, article which I can sum up in 3 words: Training is needed. When and where? Before tech savvy 13 year olds are released to scoot through Family Tree clicking away on colorful icons, they, and older folks as well, need training. Thus our website and this one too. Now if we could just get the messaging coming out of FamilySearch to figure this out as well. Prayer?