Reference BackTalk: A Focus on the Family, September 15, 2012

Tacoma Public Library’s (TPL) busy family history centers, active local genealogy society, and substantial and popular genealogy collection demonstrate Tacoma and Pierce County’s enthusiasm for family history. In 2008, two TPL librarians responded to the need and started genealogy classes for the local community.

Intergenerational know-how

We’re from different generations and have different jobs. Bob is a Baby Boomer and Jeanie a Gen Xer. Both of us, though, enjoy genealogy as a hobby, and have emotional ties to the subject and our own roots. As a “Navy brat,” Jeanie grew up moving constantly, and researching her family’s history has helped her establish a sense of home and belonging. As a child, Bob was fascinated by stories told by his elders, which formed a bridge to worlds that had vanished in cataclysms such as World Wars I and II.

Pooling our strengths and interests creates a more diverse approach to teaching genealogy. We each handle different components of the class, complementing each other’s strengths and experiences. And we believe our intergenerational dynamic enhances the synergy of the classes. Jeanie, like many of her generation, is attuned to newer technologies and enjoys adapting them to create practical solutions. She’s active in the local genealogy society, and has given talks to community groups. Bob, whose immediate ancestors came from Europe, illustrates points with examples from his own family history research.

Our primary goal was to get patrons started in family research and get them using our genealogy materials. We also hoped to establish the library, in the minds of existing and potential users, as a valuable, viable, and lasting community resource. We had specific ideas of which topics to cover, how to cover them, and with what tools. The professional literature lacked direction on how exactly to proceed, though, and while we found that many libraries offer such classes, most didn’t share coverage details.

Our most useful sources of guidance were the librarians who offered advice gleaned from teaching experience. Particularly helpful was the Librarians Serving Genealogists (Genealib) listserv, where we found class outlines, PowerPoint slides, and food for thought.

In the classroom

Our local Genealogical Society speaks to each “Introduction to Genealogy” class so that participants are introduced to a like-minded community. After hitting a brick wall in family history research, group brainstorming can often restart the work.

A static, text-heavy presentation won’t work. We use PowerPoint to encourage discussion and stay on topic. It’s easy to make copies of slides for participants to take home, and they can be quickly updated in response to suggestions. Our classes are fluid, as genealogy resources, both inside and outside the library, change continually. Usually, though, Bob begins by talking about genealogy in general. He urges people to begin their family history research by gathering stories from elderly relatives. He discusses the many different types of documents that can be used, including examples from his own family history. Jeanie then talks about related resources available through the library, and builds the family tree of a prominent Tacoma pioneer who died in the 1920s. Beginning with an almost-blank ancestor chart, she uses sources already discussed to fill in the blanks, linking library resources and genealogical principles with family-tree creation. Bob then talks in general terms about genealogy on the Web, focusing on Familysearch, Cyndi’s List, Ellis Island, Afrigenas, and Archives. Finally, Jeanie gives a tour of the original Carnegie section of the library where the relevant material is shelved.

During the classes, we monitor when participants look particularly animated and when eyes glaze over. We welcome questions at any time. Participants fill out an evaluation that asks for feedback and suggestions for future classes; we’ve found that open-ended queries are best. We added the popular class “Online Genealogy” in response to requests for more instruction with online resources

Bob begins that class by talking about genealogy resources on the Internet generally, covering such subjects as searching, the importance of links, digital photographs, and national archives worldwide that provide services to genealogists. He demonstrates how to find primary-source material from the digital archives of an ancestor’s area. Jeanie then introduces Ancestry Library Edition and HeritageQuest, using examples from both to trace the family history of a prominent local writer. Participants try the databases and the Internet on their own, and we stay around to help.

Marketing has been essential for alerting the community to the classes. One important vehicle has been eye-catching promotional slides that appear in a rotating spotlight on the library’s main page. (Our classes are also listed in the library newsletter and online calendar of events.) We showcase photographs of “ancestors” and list the name, date, and time of the class. Fliers, word of mouth, and frequent mentions in regional genealogical society newsletters also help.

These classes respond to a community need. We notice participants of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds, and have been gratified to see many of them also become frequent users of the rest of the library. We enjoy the challenge of integrating something as traditional as genealogy with modern technology, and, in the process, attracting new people to this popular pastime.