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

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Steep Uphill Battle
One of the latest Pew Research Center studies has an article entitled, "15% of Americans don't use the internet. Who are they?" The factors they found that most influence Internet activity include the demographic variables of age, educational attainment, household income, race and ethnicity, and community type.

Guess what? I find that involvement in genealogical research is dependent on the same factors. Although my impressions are not based on a scientifically structured study, I have come to the same conclusions. Here are the key reasons for lack of involvement from a 2013 Pew Research survey:
A 2013 Pew Research survey found some key reasons that some people do not use the internet. A third of non-internet users (34%) did not go online because they had no interest in doing so or did not think the internet was relevant to their lives. Another 32% of non-internet users said the internet was too difficult to use, including 8% of this group who said they were “too old to learn.” Cost was also a barrier for some adults who were offline – 19% cited the expense of internet service or owning a computer.
Even though I live in an upper-middle class neighborhood, because of my interest in genealogy, I tend to associate more with the over 65 population. I hear exactly those excuses from my associates when I question them about involvement in genealogy. Despite recent efforts to "involve the youth" in genealogical research, I still see the preponderance of the involvement deeply entrenched in the older generation.

Here we see the major problem. Genealogy is becoming saturated with technology with digitization efforts adding tens of millions of records every week to the online repositories. Attempts to conduct genealogical research from a paper-based standpoint are extremely limited and becoming even more so. For example, when was the last time you used a paper-based library catalog? The people who are most likely to be interested in their genealogy are also the people who are least likely to be sufficiently involved with computers and the Internet to even know where or how to start.

I see almost no increase in the involvement or activity level of the youth in genealogy, although I do see an increase in adult participation over time. My observations come from being in a major genealogical library day-after-day, week-after-week. You might argue that my viewpoint is skewed because now the youth can do it all online. But then, I argue, that if there were an actual increase in genealogical research, those doing the research would eventually need to come to a library to continue their investigations. I have seen this time after time as those I am helping run out of online resources. I also run out of online resources and have been spending time recently reviewing microfilm. This primarily happens whenever I am searching more than a hundred years or so into the past.

To summarize, genealogical research is the recent era, nearly saturated with online resources. Online access and the ability to do research online are almost essential to starting a pedigree. However, this saturation extends only a short distance into the past. Researchers will inevitably need resources that are not presently online. This front-end problem of Internet access is a barrier to the older populations involvement in genealogy and those are exactly the people who would be most interested.

I have some suggestions. First, I would focus more on helping the older population gain computer and online skills. This will increase the number of people who are most interested in genealogy and therefore expand the overall involvement. Second, I would continue the efforts to move as many records as possible to the Internet and make them more freely available. This will allow those who believe that "all the genealogy records are online" to do research further back in time. My last suggestion is more complicated.

One of the barriers to involvement by both the youth and those who are much older is the scattered nature of genealogically important records on the Internet. Even though the youth have the computer skills to access the Internet, they are sadly lacking in research skills and the interest to keep searching. I have seen a glimmer of hope in this regard. Brigham Young University has implemented a "myFamily History Youth Camp" which appears to be about the best idea yet for helping the youth become involved. Here is the description of the camp from the website:
This is a four-day camp where youth ages 14–18 can come to BYU and be taught the fundamentals of family history research, gain hands-on experience, and acquire an understanding of the importance of this work. We hope this camp will prepare all participants to be independently motivated to continue working on their own family history and to inspire and assist those around them with their family history. Participants will leave the camp prepared to serve as family history consultants, if called to do so. This camp is for students who are seeking a BYU experience and are willing to take an active role in helping individuals in their quest for eternal life as families. We also believe this camp will provide valuable and fulfilling employment opportunities for BYU students interested in family history. is trying to do the same thing for adults. Here is the description from their website:
Come to Salt Lake City for a unique onsite learning experience at the Family History Library! You will receive one-on-one research guidance. Enjoy an extensive classroom experience, where in-depth research skills are taught. We help you locate and use record sources beyond the basics. Bring your personal research and let our pros give you assistance that makes a difference! Click here for testimonials.
Now, we just need to figure out how to motivate those with the time and the money needed to take advantage of these opportunities to do so.

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