AASLH Educators and Interpreters Breakfast: A Discussion on Genealogy

At the AASLH Annual Meeting this past week, we held an Educators and Interpreters breakfast where the topic was genealogy and education programming.  What came out of that breakfast was this:  We have a lot to discuss on this topic.  Below is a post I wrote the the AASLH conference blog.  We promised at the breakfast that we’d start an online discussion on this, so here we go!

I want to share some food for thought that came out of this morning’s Educators and Interpreters Breakfast Roundtable.  With the annual meeting theme being Crossroads: Exploring Vibrant Connections Between People and Place, and its location in Salt Lake City, we thought a session on genealogy would be most appropriate.

We asked Craig Foster of FamilySearch to talk about the wide array of resources available in Salt Lake City’s Family History Library, and in their amazing web resource,

We also wanted to talk about how genealogy can be used to connect our audiences with personal and local history. We started the session by talking about the personal meaning behind knowing one’s family roots.  Craig shared a chart that traces the family relationship between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.  As it turns out, they are 20thcousins, twice removed.  So, what does that mean?  What role does genealogy play in our understanding of who we are, as members of our community, as Americans, and world citizens? Learning family ties clearly means something – but what? And how does it help us make meaning of our history and of our world?

Craig discussed how we can use history – particularly local history – to engage audiences of all ages. However, before we rush in and start planning genealogy programs and activities, we need to be aware of potential issues we may face.

On the surface, leading visitors and school groups through family tree activities seems harmless enough.  But what happens when your visitors learn something they didn’t expect or didn’t want to know, like illegitimacy or criminal backgrounds? How do we handle the obstacles of African American genealogy when dead ends due to slavery arise? Michelle Moon, Assistant Director of Adult Programs and the Peabody Essex Museum, suggested that even schools are shying away from family tree activities: “Family structure – even that of the nuclear family and one to two generations back – is often quite fraught, and that the diversity of family types and styles begins to introduce a level of discussion that we have to be fully prepared to manage.”

So, what do we do?  We ended the session with table discussions about opportunities and challenges for museum genealogy programming.  We are just starting this discussion. What are your thoughts on this topic?  Or, how have you successfully engaged in family research activities with your visitors?



4 Responses to “AASLH Educators and Interpreters Breakfast: A Discussion on Genealogy”

  1. October 08, 2012 at 6:13 pm, Sharron Conrad said:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this session and the conversation that our table had at the Breakfast Roundtable. Our group had a stimulating talk!

    We concluded that the best approach for school group audiences might be to engage them in the process of genealogical research by investigating public figures first (rather than requiring students to delve into their own family history). This way students can learn basic research skills, find out about libraries and archives in their community and learn about online resources like without having to delve into family histories that they haven’t been prepared for. Someone in our group even raised the interesting possibility of using local cemeteries as part of a lesson.

    We love history because it’s fascinating and illuminating, but we know that it can also be highly charged and complicated. It was great discussing creative approaches for handling these issues with student audiences.

    I look forward to hearing other ideas!


  2. October 09, 2012 at 4:25 pm, Tanya Brock said:

    The program was wonderful and engaging. is a sizeable resource and one I am happy to be made aware of. Thanks for putting this together and spreading the word.


  3. October 16, 2012 at 2:11 pm, Rhonda Newton said:

    This issue has arisen over the years with participants in our teachers’ institute. I usually trust our participants to know their students’ situations but always encourage them to include “or friends,” even in lesson plans that are an oral history assignment as there might not be a grandparent available.

    I like the idea of researching a public figure as a way of teaching the research skills!


  4. September 26, 2013 at 8:24 pm, Birmingham 2013 – What is an “Annual Meeting Kick-Off?” | Blogs (News & views) said:

    […] Last year in Salt Lake City, we invited Craig Foster from to talk to us about using genealogy resources.  The resulting discussion on the opportunities and challenges of using genealogy in public programs was very fruitful.  You can read a blog post about it here. […]


Leave a Reply