The Next Generation of Family Historians

A few weeks ago, the Archives of Michigan was visited by Junior Troop #123 of the Girl Scouts of Michigan.

After a brief introductory discussion about family history, the girls looked at a few selections from the Archives’ collections, including a map of Michigan, Michigan (as Lansing was originally known), a state prison register of inmates (complete with mug shots), records of naturalization from Ingham County, and a Sanborn Fire Insurance map of downtown Lansing and the State Capitol. Some of the more compelling questions included: “How old is that map? – It looks really old!,” “What is Prohibition?,” “What does naturalization mean?”, and “Why is that building pink?”

The real fun started when the girls began their online explorations at Ancestry, FamilySearch, and several other destinations. A few weeks before, I had encouraged the kids to talk with their families to better prepare them for their upcoming visit to the Archives. A very encouraging sign was that many of the girls had filled out the pedigree charts and family group sheets I had left with them; the foundational conversations with the family had clearly taken place. In my experience, success for a beginner – whether a 4th grader or a retiree – can be directly attributed to having spent the time on preliminary research: talking to family members, identifying and charting out the names, dates, people, and places on the family tree. In short, getting a good sense of who was where when.

Some of the Girl Scouts located 1940 U.S. Census records of their families, while others enjoyed looking at the 1860 entry for Abraham Lincoln or the 1940 page with a young Martin Luther King, Jr. Some learned that their family had a radio in 1930 (still my all-time favorite census question), while others identified a grandparent as a child in the 1940 Census. The key with this first foray into genealogy was to discover something that was personal to them or captured their interest; whether they found an actual ancestor or not was almost irrelevant. An enriching and positive first experience makes it more likely the beginner will return, and bringing something home to show their family reinforces that notion.

One of the Junior Girl Scouts in attendance was my oldest daughter, a real treat for me. These last few years, she’s been very interested in my research, even tagging along on a cemetery walk. Although I’m certain it’s a stalling technique to stay up past her bedtime, she will often ask to look at “Daddy’s books” and the family images on my computer. At the Archives, my daughter was thrilled to find her grandfather in the 1940 Census in Detroit as a toddler; the idea of “Grandpa B.” as a youngster was particularly enchanting.

Perhaps the most rewarding outcome from the Junior Girl Scouts visit was that my daughter and I talked at length about my wife’s side of the family. With deep roots in Detroit, that branch of our tree has many discoveries waiting to be made. Indeed, given my work experience at the Library of Michigan and now at the Archives of Michigan – and the ready access to piles of records and resources inherent there – I am ashamed to admit that I have worked very little on that side of the family. With her renewed interest in the family and a relatively blank slate to work from, my daughter and I can make the discoveries together. I can’t think of a better way to spend some time with her.