Librarians as Educators:Geographic Tools

Maori Warrior.jpgMy son-in-law, a misplaced New Zealander, received a “care package” from his sister in New Zealand containing, among other comfort and junk foods, roast-lamb-flavored potato chips. I tried 2 or 3. They even had a hint of mint sauce flavor to them. “To each his own”, they say. “What’s that got to do with genealogy education?” you ask. Let me tell you
But it got me thinking (mint sauce will do that) about what librarians know best that genealogists need and how that varies from place to place. For example, genealogists are very interested in locations, jurisdictions, boundaries and their changes. Librarians might lump all this under the subject of “place name literature” and think in terms of gazetteers, geographical dictionaries, maps, and atlases. Here on the Northern Great Plains our ancestors include people from northern Europe, Scandinavia, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. Some of these places may not be well represented by those who settled in Georgia, or Oregon or Nova Scotia. Consequently the variety of specialized geographic reference tools in my local library may be quite different from what is found in your library.
So how do we librarians educate our genealogy patrons about the place name literature in our collections? Personally I taught this body of material the same way I learned about it at library school. My professor prepared a detailed bibliography which each of us received. Room was left under each entry for notes. Having pulled about half those books and put them on a book cart in the order he was going to discuss them, my professor wheeled them into the lecture room and began his volume by volume comments on strengths, weaknesses, and quirks of each book and identified those that worked well together. As he discussed a book on the cart, he would start it going around the room, so a steady stream of books arrived on my desk to be scanned and passed on.

At the end of the lecture he handed out a list of questions that could be answered from one or more of the items on the bibliography, and sent us off to look at each book carefully, of course having arranged to re-shelve the volumes he had shown us. He also would indicate that he wanted us to write up a set of new questions to be answered from books on the list. We would put the question on a 3×5 card, with the location of the answer on the back. We handed in the answers to his questions – answers being in the form of a source reference to be marked. The questions we created and handed in, he recycled with other classes. The key benefit was that we learned which geographic tools answered which kind of question.

I have tried this approach in my library and found it works. However only 20 percent of those who took the course did the used the bibliography and answered the questions. Even fewer wrote new questions. Those who did? Well they are all working as professional genealogists now.

There may be other ways. I’d like to here about your experience. Your comments are most welcome. And no, that’s not my son in law. You can find him at Adam Firestorm


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