The Future of Instructional Materials
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|This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.|
No single instructional text is comprehensive enough to serve students from the beginning of their genealogical pursuits through the perfection of their skills. Beginners need practical and reliable information concerning basic sources available for genealogical research. They also need an introduction to fundamental research techniques. As students’ skills, interest, and commitment grow, so does the need for more sophisticated analyses of methodology and sources. Serious students need detailed explanations of record categories, research techniques, and advanced strategies (for example, piecing together neighborhoods using early maps, censuses and land records, or researching kin or other associates when records for the person sought are sparse).
To achieve Longinus’s goals of clarifying the subject and providing methods for mastering the subject, future instructional material must address the changing composition of its audience. In 1960, when Doane was revising his successful Searching for Your Ancestors, his readership consisted largely of retired people with the time, energy, and desire to investigate their heritage. Most of these people were born before 1900 and generally could begin by finding records for their parents in the 1880 Federal population census.
This situation no longer exists. Since that 1960 revision, the genealogical community has become younger; conference attendees, classroom participants, and library researchers are not exclusively retirees. Instructional material must reflect this demographic shift in at least two important ways: first, it needs to take advantage of video and computer multimedia technology; second, it must discuss the time period that beginning students will research. Instructional material must explain research techniques appropriate for both the time period being researched and the skill level of students.
A significant and rapidly growing number of genealogy students are under forty years of age. Of course, these people will not find themselves in the 1920 census or in the records of World War II. The Social Security Death Index may list parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents of younger researchers. How-to guides published in the 1990s and beyond must accommodate this audience; therefore, manuals for beginners should focus their approach only on the past 120 years, with some "teaser" material extending back to 1850.
Basic guides need to discuss the use of national bibliographic and public documents databases, CD-ROM technology and sources, and the Internet. The problem of finding sources will likely be replaced by the challenge of successfully managing an abundance of sources.
The Julian calendar, the pre-1850 Federal population census schedules, colonial handwriting, Federal and colonial land grants, and even revolutionary war records (an almost obligatory topic of past generations of how-to authors) are no longer valid subjects for beginners who have been admonished to work from yourself back, one generation at a time. Twentieth- and nineteenth-century records of adoption and divorce are much more relevant; one or both of these events have occurred in the recent history of many families. Prospective researchers need to be steered to good resource material and organizations (in the case of adoption) to assist in the searching of these subjects.
Focusing on contemporary time periods also changes the regions from which authors should draw examples and case studies. New England is no longer the point of origin for most researchers. The East remains important to those who have traced more than four generations of family members, but states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Indiana, and Illinois have become major areas for interim research. A beginner’s handbook that does not acknowledge this shift in geography will shortchange many in its intended audience. The successful union of advanced technology and younger readers will depend on the responsiveness of instructional material to new form, function, and focus. Changes need not be made in the fundamentals: using proper etiquette, analyzing evidence, citing sources, and avoiding pitfalls. These skills have become even more critical as information has become easier to find. As the field of genealogy is flooded with information from an ever-increasing pool of well-intentioned but inadequately trained contributors, the need to effectively sort, sift, and scan information becomes paramount. Such basics as the orderly processing of a research plan in a logical, systematic manner will never be outdated.
Two other components that should always be part of instructional materials are inspiration and ethics. Instructional material should inspire, motivate, stimulate, encourage, and build confidence in students. It should also fill students with a sense of adventure and mystery that will help them persist through difficult, shadowed, and slippery research trails.
Inspiration, however, must be tempered with strict adherence to ethics and high research standards. Every genealogical author would do well to follow Leary’s counsel from the first edition of North Carolina Research:
- As the research boom places greater and greater demands on their time, funds, and patience, directors of depositories are limiting service to the patrons for whom the facilities were established. The responsibility for an individual researcher’s work rests with that individual researcher, not with the staff of the repository in which the records are kept. The responsibility for keeping those repositories open and their records available also rests with the individual researcher; foolish questions, arrogant behavior, and unreasonable demands by one researcher place additional obstacles in the path of the researcher who follows (1980, 56).
Instructional material should promote positive and professional conduct. The authors of such works have an obligation to do so. The discussion of standards and expectations clarifies the role of the genealogical researcher. Ultimately, the quality of instructional material will determine how well students master the art and skill of genealogy.