Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Young Genealogist: There is NOTHING wrong with them (and here's how to keep them into genealogy)

I got started with this blog post on the fact that there's yet another article accusing young genealogists of being deficient in some way or too stuck on themselves to be in genealogy, or too addicted to the computer to be interested in anything else. Sorry this will get a little long, but its worth sticking through, I promise!

"You don’t even think about your roots. In your 20s and 30s you’re busy creating your own identity.”
"These younger people usually had some kind of disconnect in their family, or a missing relative, and were “trying to fill a hole”, she says."
“Because it’s a lot more focused on comperuterisation, that brings the younger generation through. It is on the internet.”

These are quotes from Michelle Patient, President of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists.

Michelle, I want to point out that you are not a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, so I question the validity of your statement. Should you have proof that we're too busy creating our own identity to care about others/our genealogy in our 20s and 30s, please feel free to email me.

At first I was offended by the idea that she seems to think that younger genealogists are motivated only by negative causes to pursue a lifelong hobby that takes many years to fulfill. Then I thought about it as I munched on my lunch...

...she's confusing "spark" or inspiration with motivation.

You see, I got into genealogy when I was 10 years old. I found a piece of paper among the things I inherited from my grandmother. She was an awesome woman whom I fondly miss, but I knew her quite well as she had spent quite a bit of time with my family in our houses. My "spark" was not the death of my grandmother, but the piece of paper.

That piece of paper sparked an interest in detective work. Aside from the Disney movies, my mother and father introduced me to TV Shows like 21 Jump Street, Law and Order, CHIPs, Cagney and Lacey, Charlie's Angels, The Untouchables, and NYPD Blue (up until the episode where they started showing nudity, at which point I couldn't watch it anymore) along with horror/puzzle shows like the Twilight Zone reboot, Tales from the Crypt, Unsolved Mysteries and the old Rod Sterling Twilight Zone.

What did I take away from this? I hate all the blood, the guts, and the violent gore - but I was hooked on solving the puzzle of the case. And then I remembered the piece of paper, with names of some great-uncles I knew. So I took the Internet and in searching through AOL, came across a link to their genealogy community amongst the various links for detective fans. That in turn led me to their message boards, where someone got me to Rootsweb where I learned how to find the right courthouses, and I started writing letters. As I received each piece of the puzzle, my brain began to whir with possibilities and I studied the history of the areas my family is from, learning about the daily life of a person there and then, and eventually, I started traveling to places my family had been, learning more and more - and with the explosion of information from the Internet, I've gradually progressed to a researched and sourced tree that goes back to the 1700s on both sides of the family.

I continued throughout my 20s and 30s and I met more and more young genealogists like myself, who got started in different ways. Many got hooked because of school projects that got them started. Others were like me - finding something and wanting to know more. Some saw genealogists on TV, helping solve brilliant cases of inheritance treasure and death. Others wanted to know more about their family because they saw history as names and dates and thought there was more to it. Some wanted to know what the heck their parents and grandparents saw in the hobby, :-). Some just liked the pictures.

Rarely have I met the young genealogist who has said they were lacking something in their life. A few have mentioned they were adopted, and were looking into that, and a few have mentioned that the death of a grandparent motivated them to make sure their life and family was documented for the future. But these have been few and far between the many hundreds of young genealogists I have met.

The other issue I want to address is the idea that we're all technology junkies between 20-30 nowadays. Yes, we are all addicted to using our smartphones. But that doesn't mean there aren't genealogists who still write letters, travel, trade photographs, and other non-technology motivated tasks - we use the technology to assist with this. We don't need everything on the computer just to have fun in genealogy.

Michelle Patient, if you want to motivate younger folks to participate and stay in genealogy, you have to have people actively working to let the young folks in. Putting the schools in the family history fair is a great idea, but you also have to demonstrate to the schools how doing your family tree helps with critical thinking, essay writing, building research skills, budgeting, planning, organization, and leads to a lifelong hobby to help you interact with others for the rest of your life.

You also have to work to let the young folks in. Here in the States, often genealogy societies have people in positions from their 60s until they die, leaving no place for young folks to participate except in perhaps "social media" or "website design". We don't have an attention span anymore to stick around for 40 years, waiting for someone to die off so we can get involved. Putting projects together such as digitizing old photos, matching them to current locations, working with GPS, doing oral interviews over Skype and in person, and collecting stories are great ways to get young folks involved and keep them in genealogy for a long time.

Here are some more ideas: working with the Eagle Scout candidates in Boy Scouts, working with the Gold Award candidates in Girl Scouts - they often do historical cemetery projects, cleaning and categorizing, or installing historical markers in towns here, compiling town or church histories, etc. Their service can be of great help to genealogists every where, and yet, they are often an overlooked resource. Same thing with many community service groups - they can clean cemeteries, make lists of names, take town photographs, research old photos, etc.

Creating ways to make cemeteries less scary to young folks can also help. Halloween parties in cemeteries, cemetery walks with tales about the people there and their lives are both great ideas and can also help cut down on cemetery vandalism, as people realize how valuable those tombstones are. Making museums more active can also help, as it prompts interaction with younger folks. The Cantigny First Division Museum is a great example of this ideal near where I live - its design has received numerous national awards.

Also - you can think of alternative uses for genealogy. Who would have thought that antique spinning wheel owners would get interested in it? Or that knitters would be able to run whole genealogies on the patterns passed down from generation to generation? Or that Italian Stregheria (think similar to Wiccans) would be interested in finding their ancestry? Think outside the box to involve these folks in your activities as well. New Zealand has a huge, wonderful history with the fiber industry - it would be wonderful for those of us in the States to get to learn more about it. Could you involve folks like Wiccans in tracing the alternative religions of New Zealand and get them in love with genealogy as well?

Lastly, most genealogy societies have their meetings on a weekday in the middle of the day. Younger folks are in school, at work, and definitely not available for many society meetings. Moving meetings to a Saturday or evening can really help bring in a younger demographic, as more of them are able to come outside of their obligation time.

Michelle Patient, I hope you realize that you CAN entice younger folks into genealogy and they're not deficient or defective in some way, and that you can motivate rather than just "spark" their interest. Good luck to the New Zealand Society of Genealogists!
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