Printer Friendly

Connecting Teens with Their Families through Genealogy.

Becoming a librarian was a mid-life career change for me, and when I decided to go to graduate school, I looked for a job more in line with my career interests. Fortunately, a position had just opened in our state genealogical society and library Thus began the start of a journey of discovery

Working there helped me find a passion for family history that I've now had for over a decade, and it also helped me realize that another of my passions--youth services--could be combined with it in an exciting way when I worked with teen patrons. There were skeptics who told me that we would never get students interested in family history. ("That's something people pick up once they've retired," I heard time and time again.) Part of me just knew that if our teens got a taste of researching their families, they would be hooked. I also remembered how many adult researchers I had spoken with who had lamented the fact that they hadn't asked their relatives for information when they were alive. Now, they were left to piece things together after they had passed on. If we can get teens involved now, get them to ask questions, they create the potential for dialogue and connection with their families.


Beyond the opportunity for intergenerational connection, encouraging teens to do their genealogy is a great way to expose them to history. So often teens have said that genealogy has helped them see beyond names and dates and connected them in a very personal way to world events--everything from Ellis Island and immigration to military service and World War I to something as simple as seeing their own ancestors living in their town in a census or city directory. Especially during a time of life when teens can feel alienated and disconnected, genealogy can help them make connections to the long line of people who came before them, help them see where they have come from, and offer them a sense of grounding and longevity in a sometimes-confusing world.


When you are convinced that it's worth doing, start the process with your students. First, if you haven't done your own genealogy or helped others do theirs, get up to speed with the basics of family history research, so you'll be able to teach your teen patrons. is where many people start their journeys, and hopefully your library subscribes to the Ancestry Library Edition. If it doesn't, there are other free resources out there, like FamilySearch. org which has a variety of record groups, including the census, marriage licenses, wills, and many others from the United States and all over the world; and the National Archives website. Be familiar with your library's genealogy resources. Most public libraries, even the smallest ones, have a collection or a room that holds books and materials about local history and genealogy. Talk to the person at your library in charge of your genealogy and history resources and develop a thorough knowledge of what your collection holds. This is a great ^ way to introduce teens to using their local library along with online research. Encourage them to check out their local genealogical or historical society or other repositories in your town. Students will become comfortable with using these types of resources and they will gain lifelong, beneficial research skills. Webinars are a great way to engage teens in genealogy. has several about getting started with research, and Legacy Family Tree webinars provide instruction on a wide range of family history topics. StoryCorps is an excellent place to find oral history resources and suggestions of questions teens can ask their family members. See the many resources at the end of this article.

The most common approach to teaching genealogy is to start by asking teens to complete a family history chart. In your first session, let them fill out what they know of names, dates, and places, starting with themselves and working backwards to their parents, grandparents, and further generations, if they know them. If a teen doesn't know a parent, or he is adopted, encourage him to work on just his mother's line, for example, or, in the case of adoption, have him trace his adopted parents' family lines.

For a different approach, Masterman High School in Philadelphia assigns its students people in the Woodlands Cemetery and lets them research all about their lives. Use Find a Grave to look up names in one of your town's cemeteries, perhaps picking someone historical from the late 1800s/earlyl900s, and let students see what they can find.


Several successful scenarios can work to create a meaningful genealogy program for teens. First, try working with the local high school to implement the genealogy project. To do this, talk to the history teacher to see if he or she is open to a project like assigning research on a local historical figure. Then, map out what the expectations will be with the teacher. Masterman students worked in teams assigned one person from the Woodlands Cemetery and presented their findings to their classmates when they completed their research.

If teens prefer to work on their own family history, you might try the approach I took. I connected with the National Archives in Philadelphia and we held a six-week program during which we met with five students once a week, delving into the records and using and other resources to help them find their ancestors. The students were encouraged to conduct an oral history with at least one or more family members, during which they ask about family memories or traditions. At the end of the summer, the teens put together Prezi presentations full of scanned photos, records, and other interesting finds, and we invited friends and family to come hear them talk about what they found. This led to some amazing discoveries and, along the way, we had some deep conversations about ethnicity, family structures, the impact of historic events on everyday lives, and identity, as teens' senses of themselves grew and expanded with every discovery.

A third approach developed during our regularly scheduled summer learning program at my library. For two of the six weeks of the program, we met for an hour in our community room and encouraged family members to come, too. I gave an overview about how to start researching family histories and talked about the different record types. The families then had the opportunity to work with their teens to begin to fill in the family charts and plan which gaps they would research next. Three staff members, including myself, were available to offer support, if needed. We encouraged them to work on the project at home and bring back what they'd found the following week. We had iPads and computers available, loaded with, so they could continue their research. I heard stories from teens about going to talk to their grandparents and about parents and teens digging in attics and basements to find family heirlooms. I heard some fascinating histories of families who came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some of the teens have continued their research and, in one case, a student went to college and started a genealogy club of her own.

OTHER PROJECT IDEAS has a page on their wiki called "Family History Activities for Youth" that has some creative project suggestions for children and teens. Searching "family history book" on Pinterest brings up a wide variety of options for scrapbooking, preserving oral histories, and unique ways of presenting a teen's research. Projects can be tailored to your individual library very easily-- make it as simple or involved as your time and resources allow.


Sometimes, there can be surprising revelations during the research process, but I'm amazed by teens' resilience. Guide them in the research, be a listening ear, and encourage them to talk about their findings with their family, if that supportive relationship exists.

Keep in mind that historically, genealogy charts haven't always had space for blended/non-traditional families. Let your students get creative in designing their own family trees that help reflect their family structure.

Overall, teens have the potential to connect to their families, their schools, and their communities by studying their own or other's family histories. They also have an opportunity to learn to view and use your library as a lifelong resource. It is a great way to have a positive impact in your teens' lives.

Joyce Homan is a reference librarian at the Cambria County Library in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and feels lucky that she gets to work with teens and with genealogy on a daily basis. She is also a board member of the Western PA Genealogical Society (WPGS), and when not hunting ancestors, enjoys seeing live music, taking wad trips, and finding the next best graphic novel.


Ancestry, https://www. ancestry, com/.

Ancestry. "Charts and Forms." charts-and-forms

FamilySearch: "Family History Activities for Youth." https:// for_Youth

Family Tree Magazine, Find a Grave,

Holik, Jennifer. Branching Out: Genealogy for High School Students. Generations, 2012. 128p. $21.95 Trade pb. 978-1-938226-16-8.

Holik, Jennifer, and Stephanie Pitcher Fishman. Engaging the Next Generation: A Guide for Genealogical Societies and Libraries. Generations, 2012. 234p. $21.95 Trade pb. 978-1-938226-06-9.

Legacy Family Tree, National Archives, Pinterest. Prezi Presentation Software, Story Corps,
COPYRIGHT 2017 E L Kurdyla Publishing LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Homan, Joyce
Publication:Voice of Youth Advocates
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2017
Previous Article:The Road to College.
Next Article:Becoming a Manager.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters