Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nova, Smolenyak and WDYTYA

Nova Southeastern University, Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and the Producers of the TV series "Who Do You Think You Are" have all gotten something right: they have welcomed beginners into the family history-genealogy world.

One of my favorite public radio features, Composers' Notebook, ends each show with the reminder that "all music was once new." And, I might add, the composers were all once beginners. Although beautiful music seemed to pour forth effortlessy from Mozartian prodigies, the vast majority of composers had to learn their craft, progressing from the basics to the sublime.

Some of us started at an early age and many of us started later in life, but we genealogists all also had to start as beginners, learn about out subject matter and develop our craft. This is why I am so excited about Nova Southeastern University's 3rd Annual Genealogy Fair, where I spoke this April. Nova is a non-traditional private university in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, just north of Miami. One thing makes its Genealogy Fair unusual: it is free. Nova's Alvin ShermanLibrary strives to be a resource to the broader Broward County community. The library has a fine genealogy collection and an energetic outreach librarian in Kim Garvey. The library and the university see their free Genealogy Fair as a natural vehicle for community outreach.

The Nova Genealogy Fair is more than an open house with exhibits and vendor tables. Nova brings in top-notch genealogy educators for the day. I shared the program this year with Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak. Most genealogy conferences and workshops are sponsored by local or state genealogical societies. They put on high quality programs, but most have to charge a significant registration fee to cover costs of putting on the program. The people most willing to pay $25 or $35 for a day of classes are commonly people who have been into family history for a while. These local and state society programs often have difficulty attracting beginners, who aren't quite sure they are ready to put money into this family history thing.

When I asked for a show of hands, something approaching half of the attendees at Nova's Genealogy Fair had been doing family history research less than two years. Many were recent beginners (I'd rather call them beginners, or perhaps learners, than "newbies").

The price (free) probably had something to do with bringing in the beginners. Good publicity, including co-sponsorship from the Miami Herald, also probably helped. But, many of the beginners said they had gotten interested because of the NBC show Who Do You Think You Are. Some genealogists have grumbled that WDYTYA puts entertainment ahead of education, making family history research look a little too easy. But, do we really want them to make it look so hard that people get discouraged?

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, the Chief Genealogical Consultant for WDYTYA, has written a companion book: Who do You Think You Are: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History. In my mind, writing a book for beginners, or people who haven't even yet begun, is more difficult than writing for more experienced readers. Megan is a superb communicator, and her book communicates something very important for beginners: family history is possible. In an easy-going and welcoming style, she welcomes newcomers to family history and genealogy.

I applaud Nova Southeastern University and Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak for their approach. It is a good thing to encourage people to give genealogy a try. Their encouragement gives us (genealogical societies and professional genealogists) an opportunity to teach. Some of these newcomers will be tomorrow's experts, and then be poised to help a whole new crop of beginners get started. Pass it on.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The GEO in GenEalOgy

More than once, I have accidentally typed "geography" when I meant to type "genealogy." Perhaps, this happens because I once was a graduate student in geography. Or, perhaps it is because genealogy and geography are so inter-connected in my mind.

One of my favorite lectures is entitled "The GEO in GenEalOgy." In this talk, I try to get people excited about the geographical aspects of family history research.

Genealogists often have a fascination for history. Studying our family history brings "real history" to life. Historical events were the backdrop of our ancestors' lives. Geography gives similar context to our ancestors' lives. If historical events are the backdrop, the land is the stage on which our ancestors lived. Our ancestors lived in both time and space. And, our ancestors didn't stand still. They moved around from place to place, leaving tracks wherever they went.

Why did our ancestors live where they lived? How did they get there? Why did they stop where they did. How did the natural environment influence their lives? Mountains and waterways channeled migration. Soil made farmers rich or poor. Climate made life comfortable or near to impossible. By learning about these things, we begin to better understand our ancestors' lives. Without modern climate control, high-tech water supply and water control technologies, or high-speed transportation, their lives were more influenced by the natural world than are ours (or so we think).

So, take the time to study maps and get to know the geography of your ancestors' lives. It will add a whole new dimension to your genealogical research.

(c) J. H. Fonkert, 2010.