Bridging the Technology Gap

In my day job as a librarian, one of my favorite tasks is teaching computer classes for senior adults. I get all ages in my classes from people in their mid-50s to octogenarians.  Almost without exception, they come to my class having had frustrating experiences with family members (particularly younger family members) attempts to teach them.  They are confused about the tech terminology that is everywhere today (what in heaven’s name is a URL?) but are embarrassed to ask for explanations. Worst of all, they have a technology inferiority complex: They actually believe that they are “‘dumb” and will never be able to learn the skills at which younger people seem so proficient. It is immensely gratifying to watch my students realize that they CAN learn to use a computer and then become excited about the world that their new knowledge can open up for them.

So what does this have to do with genealogy?  Well, like it or not, genealogy seems to attract those of us who are a little farther along in years.  Of course there are many exceptions (right Elyse?) but by and large many new genealogists are middle-aged and older. Which also happens to be the demographic with the least technology skills. Add to that the trend away from print and microfilm and towards online access exclusively and you begin to have a significant barrier for genealogy “newbies.” So what can the genealogy community do to help today’s newbies get started? I have a few ideas (you knew I would, right?).
  1. Offer hands-on beginning computer and internet classes along with beginning genealogy classes. Don’t assume everyone knows how to use a mouse or type in a URL. Many don’t.
  2. Show them how to use a few free online resources. Don’t overwhelm them with a litany of all the internet has to offer. Focus on just a few like FamilySearch or RootsWeb. The temptation as a teacher is to let our enthusiasm run amok. As more experienced researchers, we are always thrilled to find a new sandbox to play in! But beginners are easily overwhelmed and confused, so save most of those great online resources for later and let the newbies get their feet under them.
  3. Show them where to go to learn more. Provide them with opportunities to build their skills, both in technology and genealogy. Yes, there are lots of classes and webinars available online (Family Tree University springs to mind!) and by all means tell them where to find them. But also don’t forget that those of us born before the Internet are probably most comfortable with the old-fashioned printed page. Give them a list of good genealogy and computer books for beginners. Make sure the computer books are recent publications that  have lots of color screen shots and step-by-step directions. Give them a copy of Family Tree Magazine (and no, they don’t pay me to say this!). There are lots of great articles for beginning genealogists that may or may not require computer skills to learn.
  4. Follow up. After the initial beginners classes, have some follow-up, refresher classes. They will have questions that they didn’t know to ask the first time.
When I first started with genealogy, one of my sons commented “Mom, that’s an old person’s hobby!” Yes, that is the stereotypical view. By all means lets smash that stereotype at every opportunity. On the other hand, if the shoe fits…well I am dad-gum gonna wear it with pride!
Photo by mypresense

Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Nancy Shively of Skiatook, OK. Read all her posts at Family Tree University. Want to be our next Family Tree Firsts blogger? Enter our contest!

Polish up your genealogy skills with Family Tree University courses! Courses starting Nov. 7 include First Steps: Using Marriage and Divorce Records, Computer Boot Camp for Genealogists, Creating a Family History Book and more. View the course schedule and register here.

2 thoughts on “Bridging the Technology Gap

  1. I have been doing genealogy for a long time and I do not need basic info, but I would like to know more about some details. May I just ask questions, when they arise?? Is there a course for that Idea?/

  2. Shirley—we don’t have a course like that at this time (although it’s a great idea!). However, I’d definitely recommend our forums as a good way to bounce ideas around and get input from other genealogists. You can find them here.

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