Evaluating Instructional Materials
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|This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.|
Gone are the days when researchers could learn their craft solely by practical application. Acquiring knowledge by trial and error is inefficient and unnecessary, and can jeopardize the research opportunities of those who follow.
Instructional material helps researchers progress from the personal to the universal. No longer can a family historian, a professional genealogist, or a teacher function autonomously. As members of the larger genealogical community, researchers must operate under a code of ethics and proper standards of conduct. This code includes not only adequately documenting and describing sources of information, but also developing an awareness of local and national concerns about records preservation and access. The best method of developing an appreciation of issues and a policy of responsible action is receiving quality instruction.
The introduction of online computer bulletin boards, the high attendance at national conferences, and the potential for networking among researchers certainly offer many instructional opportunities. But they do not alter a basic fact: the printed word reaches more researchers than any other medium and thus is most influential in transmitting skills, information, and attitudes. Genealogical society leaders, book reviewers, teachers, and professional genealogists are likely to be asked, How do I begin? These experienced researchers must be prepared to recommend the best instructional materials in the field. The following criteria should aid the selection process.
An important consideration in evaluating instructional material is the experience and expertise the author brings to the work.
- Is the author a practicing genealogist who has gained recognition among peers through writing or lecturing? Or is the author a professional writer who has chosen genealogy as the subject for a marketable book?
- Is the author familiar with the concepts, research principles, records, and regions that are described in the book?
- What training has the author received for this type of work?
- What other works have been prepared by this author and how well were they received by the genealogical community and reviewers?
This is not to imply that only a professional researcher can write a research guide or that only a practicing teacher can prepare instructional materials. Instead, it suggests that an author’s credentials and reputation are a prime evaluative factor.
Another consideration in evaluation of instructional material is the reader’s purpose. Is the reader seeking personal development? If so, on what skill level? Will the publication be used be as a classroom text or as reference material from which lessons or lectures will be prepared? With the purpose clearly in mind, book selectors first should examine the preface and the foreword. If readers need an authoritative reference on record categories, for instance, books that claim in the preface to focus upon methodology would be inappropriate. If a book’s purpose, stated in the introduction, is to interest children in family history, adults may not find the guide compelling or helpful.
Book selectors should examine a work’s table of contents closely.
- Do the topics parallel the author’s stated intent?
- Does the selection of material seem comprehensive?
- Is the division of sources or methods reasonable?
- Is there adequate emphasis on the time periods and regions that readers are interested in?
- Are the topics appropriate to the skill level of readers? (An introductory how-to guide that purports to help readers take the first steps in writing a family history need not detail the deciphering of colonial handwriting or discuss the change to the Gregorian calendar. On the other hand, such discussions would be necessary in a how-to book intended for intermediate or advanced researchers.)
Next, book selectors should read a dozen or more pages of the publication.
- Is the writing clear and concise and the style pleasing?
- Are the examples drawn from a wide spectrum of experience rather than only the author’s personal research?
- Are descriptions adequate or do they provide only a superficial account of topics for the sake of selling the book?
- Does the text contain typographical and grammatical errors? (Carefully edited books do not.)
- Did the editing process include a reading of the manuscript by an authority in the subject matter?
- Is the text free from technical errors?
Accuracy of information can be tested by checking some portion of the text against credible sources. For example, a typical error in material that discusses census records would be a statement like the following: The 1880 Soundex indexes heads of households having children under ten; actually, the 1880 Soundex indexes heads of households having children aged ten or under. This and other inaccuracies should be noted and weighed in the evaluation. Technical errors indicate that the author consulted mediocre sources in preparing the text.
Those who select books should also consider the currency and life span of the text.
- Does the publication address twentieth-century sources adequately?
- Is the information timeless, or does the book’s focus limit its life?
Research methods do not change drastically over the years, but "shortcuts" may, as may prices, addresses, and locations of collections. Instructional materials that devote a great amount of space to these subjects are severely limited in their life span unless they also provide a worthwhile account of methodology or sources.
Next, book selectors should examine the bibliography.
- Does it contain an adequate number of titles for supplemental reading?
- Are these titles quality publications?
- Are the references divided into categories or annotated so that readers can identify works that will be helpful?
- Are the citations properly noted so that the reader can obtain them easily?
Book selectors should appraise maps, illustrations, charts, and tables. Are they relevant and legible? Poorly reproduced records and maps frustrate readers. Not all reproductions need to be in color nor of such high quality that the publication’s cost soars beyond reason; however, illustrations and other graphics must be decipherable and appropriate to the text.
The index should be comprehensive enough to permit readers to locate specialized topics within larger categories. Broad index entries such as "Census" or "Military" are inadequate. Secondary entries, such as "Cross Index to Selected City Streets and Enumeration Districts, 1910 Census," or "War of 1812 Bounty Land Records," enable readers to access desired information quickly.
Finally, do book reviewers in respected genealogical journals and newsletters recommend the publication? If several reviewers recommend the book with a caution on its treatment of the Social Security Death Index, for example, readers can judge the usefulness of the book with confidence. While book selectors should use caution in making decisions on the basis of promotional material or paid advertisements, a publisher’s notice that includes endorsements from recognized professionals serves as one measure of quality.