Teens and Seniors Learn New Skills Through Genealogy

I first got hooked on genealogy in library school — a reference services course to be exact. We had an assignment where we had to look up information about an ancestor using primary and secondary library resources. After that little taste, I was hooked and started exploring even more of my family's history (and yes, signed up for an Ancestry account).

Genealogy is a great way to learn library resources, but I never really considered how it might be a tool for digital inclusion until I heard about the Burlington (Washington) Public Library's ROOTS program.

On Sarah Deringer's excellent calendar of free library and information science webinars (bookmark it!), Making Connections Through ROOTS from Washington State Library Continuing Education caught my eye.

ROOTS, an acronym for Researching Our Origins for Teens and Seniors, is a pilot program from the Burlington Public Library in partnership with the Skagit Valley Genealogical Society. Library director Maggie Buckholz and reference librarian Karen Prasse shared how the library collaborated with its local genealogy society and a nearby alternative high school to create a one-of-a-kind history and information literacy program.

A Symbiotic Learning Experience

ROOTS matched students to seniors from the Skagit Valley Genealogical Society. The teens learned how to search, collect, and record family history from primary and secondary resources.

But the students weren't the only learners in this program: the genealogists gained mentoring skills, discovered new technologies, and were exposed to new cultural family history resources, such as tools for researching African-American and Chicano lineage.

I love the idea of side-by-side, lateral learning and the library is the perfect location for this to happen. This is also a great way to mesh adult and teen programming.

The Importance of Preparation

Before the learning could start, however, the library had to identify project leaders, develop a curriculum, and recruit mentors. The librarians designated two key leaders: a teacher from the alternative high school and a local genealogy expert.

With the leaders, the librarians developed a curriculum for both the students and the mentors. Lucky for us, the Burlington Public Library has a page with all of the resources and lessons it used for the program on its ROOTS Project report site (along with mentor guidelines, release forms, and so much more).

The librarians based the curriculum for the students around the book Branching Out and supplemented it with cemetery visits, instructions on how to do oral-history interviews, Skype-a-genealogist sessions, seeking out military records, field trips, examining primary/secondary sources, and using existing library databases and genealogy tools.

They also put together four evening programs of "living history" at the library, where the genealogists acted out local historical figures and events.

I wanted to highlight one interesting detail they shared, which was on managing the mentors' expectations. I appreciated the librarians' honesty on the initial rocky start with the genealogists.

For some of the members of the Skagit Valley Genealogical Society, the end result of the project was the most important thing. They didn't realize that the point was for the students to learn new research skills. It wasn't about the finished family tree or report, but about the process. Maggie said that she wished the librarians had explained this a bit better in their initial meetings with the society members.

Making Genealogy Relevant to the Teens

I really liked that the library held "train the trainer" sessions for the genealogists. Though they are experts in their field, some needed confidence building in working with teens.

There was also a very crucial area that needed to be addressed: understanding who they would be doing family research for. The teens were a diverse group with Native American, Latin American, African American, and European heritage. The genealogists were mostly familiar with researching European American families. The librarians added a session on African American genealogy research and recruited a Latin American community leader to assist with the knowledge building in these areas.

New Skills + Confidence = Lifelong Learners

The librarians shared some of the program evaluations from both the mentors and the teens that truly showed how successful the program was and how much both groups learned. One mentor shared:

"I learned how to research someone's Mexican roots; I learned it is easy to 'Skype' an expert. I learned about Soundex, which helps find names I couldn't find before. I learned that researching family backgrounds can give students a pride in themselves they didn't have before."

And from a student:

"I learned so much about my family and my history and to watch it unfold was incredible. I also realized how much more the Internet can be utilized. I used to think that the only way to find answers was by websites such as Google and Bing and now I know so much more. ROOTS showed me how much I like genealogy and it will continue to be a hobby for me for the rest of my life!"

I highly recommend watching the full webinar and exploring the Burlington Public Library's ROOTS project page if you're interested in implementing your library's own version. Kudos to the Burlington Public Library, a TechSoup for Libraries member (read a case study we wrote about them!), for completing this amazing program and sharing all of its resources with other libraries!

Have you done a program matching teens with seniors? Share with us in the comments.

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