28 June 2008

The future is now: Encouraging younger genealogists

Some of today's most well-known genealogists got hooked on family history research as young students in elementary or junior high school. They have translated this passion and acquired skill into contemporary research that in many cases has benefited international researchers. Very young when they caught the genealogy bug, people like Steve Morse (One Step fame), Bennett Greenspan (Family Tree DNA), Randy Schoenberg (an attorney specializing in return of Nazi-looted art) and Marlene Bishow (JGS of Greater Washington president) were unique among their classmates, but there are other individuals, of course. While some younger genealogists are seen at international Jewish genealogy conferences and as speakers to societies - such as Logan Kleinwaks, with his OCR and database expertise, and Elise Friedman's DNA interest - there are few organized programs to provide encouragement and instruction, other than the Center for Jewish History's Samberg Family History Program (link below). What would genealogy look like today if 1,000 people had, as adolescents, become passionate about Jewish family history? Despite the absence of organized programming in the Jewish genealogy community, some individuals somehow caught this interest in family history and ran with it. Can you imagine if there had been an organized annual program with inspired instructors in our schools and communities? Can we disregard the benefits to Jewish identity and continuity that result from family history research? Connecting the past to the present is the first step to seeing oneself as a link in a chain thousands of years old. It is never too late to begin to plan for the future of Jewish genealogy. Who knows where the next "genealogy household name" will come from? A high school level competition for juniors/seniors would produce long-lasting benefits both to students, to societies and to Jewish genealogy in general. As winners apply to colleges and list among their honors such genealogy achievement awards, wouldn't that help individual students to stand out with a unique achievement? I would hope that students presenting with such awards would, in turn, encourage universities to consider genealogy courses or other programming. If such a program had been put into place years ago, it wouldn't have been only those individuals we recognize today, but so many others in communities across North America and around the world. Today, with more accessible resources and much more public interest, this is an even more viable idea, and the demographics are changing. I believe that our Jewish genealogical societies must get involved with our young people - our future genealogists. Although societies complain about lack of news coverage for activities, declining memberships and a host of other problems, they generally still resist organized public outreach. Generally, there is a lack of understanding concerning outreach and its importance to all organizations, dismissal of the concept that new categories of members are essential to overall growth, and resistance to recognizing the inherent value of any achievement not produced by genealogists and specifically directed at other genealogists. The result: A self-limiting, inward-looking audience. I often suggest that both individual societies and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) get involved in organizing award programs at the junior and senior high levels, recognizing young genealogists and encouraging participation in whatever way possible (including special dues structure for students). Such programs can be carried out by a society or group of societies on their own or in cooperation/partnership with local synagogues, Jewish historical societies, university Judaic studies departments or other similarly-goaled institutions, to produce long-running benefits. I keep hoping that I will see a local program, with winners going on to state, regional and international levels. I'm always on the lookout for stories like the following, in the hope that someone at our Jewish genealogical societies will believe in the inherent value of such a program or project. Genealogist Stephanie Weiner - a librarian with California's San Diego County Library - the Carlsbad (California) City Library last year offered a summer genealogy program for students at the Cole Library. This branch has one of the largest genealogy collections in southern California, with an emphasis on 17th-19th century US resources, with online subscriptions to many valuable genealogy sites, and offers beginning genealogy classes and computer genealogy classes every month. Resources include archival user guides, city directories and state censuses. Stephanie has written a proposal for San Diego State University, which has a Judaic Studies department, for a team-taught elective interdisciplinary genealogy course for college students. Instructors would include genealogists and appropriate faculty members. Each participating student would design their own program depending on their own family history interests. The Center for Jewish History in New York City offers the Samberg Family History Program, an academic summer fellowship for high school students, from June 30-July 25 this year. In the general genealogy world, the Association of Professional Genealogists has just named the recipient of the first Young Professional Scholarship Award as Michael Melendez of Fullerton, California. The high school senior performed a 150-hour internship at a Family History Center, completed staff training and is currently a staff member. A member of the Federation of Genealogical Societies' Youth Committee as well as the Future Genealogists Society (which I had never heard of before) and organized a Beginners Family History Jamboree as part of his Eagle Scout project. The APG provides that the recipient attend the annual Professional Management Conference (Federation of Genealogical Societies; this year Philadelphia, Sept. 3) along with conference registration and a $500 award toward travel and accommodations. Candidates for the award must be 18-25; be a high school senior, undergrad, postgrad or recent grad, with at least a 3 GPA on a 4 scale Another story is this one from Canton, Illinois, where 1,400 students were involved in some aspect of history and genealogy this year in one program. While the Illinois program covers history as well as focused genealogy, it is a good model for other organizations that wish to get involved in a similar fashion. They offer a series of free videos (8-20 minutes) with useful information, how to decide on and research a topic, and others. Prize categories for individuals and groups include research papers, exhibits, dramatic performances and media presentation, while awards include ribbons, scholarships, governor's award, research and writing awards, and others offered by specific institutions or organizations for special topics, some carrying monetary prizes. Here's the Illinois article:
Astoria student wins Family History Award at annual Illinois History Expo SPRINGFIELD - A student at Astoria Junior High School received the Genealogical/Family History Award during the annual Illinois History Expo held May 8 in Springfield. “This new award honors students who perform outstanding genealogical research for a paper that is entered in the History Expo,” said Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) Director Jan Grimes. The Agency sponsors Expo in cooperation with the Chicago Metro History Education Center. Bhrea Wright won the Genealogical/Family History Award for her paper, “The Biography of Dr. Russell R. Dohner.” More than 1,400 junior and senior high school students from across the state participated in the May 8 Expo. The students were winners selected during regional history fairs held earlier this year.
Read more here. For more information on the Illinois program, click here. [NOTE: There was a glitch in the first posting of this item which resulted in repetition of some portions. The repeated portions have now been eliminated.]


  1. Several years ago I connected with a teacher at a small town high school in northern Alabama. She was the English teacher and managed the school's web site. She - and the history teacher - were using genealogy to support their teaching efforts. It worked well for them because most of the students' families had lived there for generations with ancestors who had survived Sherman's March and lived with the Cherokees.

    Imagine using old family letters and journals to support teaching the Civil War. A creative writing exercise takes on a whole new dimension when the subject is an ancestor and, to better understand that ancestor's place in history, you'll need to learn about that history.

    They had an online student newspaper that was fascinating - especially their local history articles. It was an impressive endeavor.

    I guess those teachers have retired because the site is now gone. I'm sure those they inspired more than one student in the world of family history. They surely inspired me.

  2. You may be interested in a free resource which is now available for family tree researchers who think their genealogy has aristocratic roots. The complete (3000 pp) reference book Debretts Peerage and Baronetage is now freely searchable. Personal annual subscriptions are also available for £75 but the searching, with readable snippet results is free and useful. See