Unusually, I was interested in family history before my seventh birthday and was seriously researching in my early twenties. At a recent local history talk that I gave, my most enthusiastic audience member was an eight year old boy – brilliant. If we believe that it is vital to enthuse younger generations with our love of history and family history, rather than just hope that, with all the other competing interests, they will enthuse themselves, what can we do? Having worked with young people, both in and out of a history and family history context, I believe that the spark is there now, young people ARE interested. I could spend the rest of this post trying to prove this to you but I believe there are more important things to be said. I promise they are interested or they could easily be persuaded to be interested, if approached in the right way. In that case, why are most local and family history groups made up of wonderful people who are nevertheless, predominantly of retirement age? Here is the crux of the matter – young people are not interested in doing things OUR WAY.
Be aware, be very aware, that young people have the attention spans of gnats and they expect things to be immediate, bite-sized, visual and interactive. That’s fine you might say, I can do modern technology, I have a website. Websites are great but not if they are effectively a 1970s textbook on line. Young people want a young people’s website. Look at Devon Family History Society’s Acorn Club website pages. They are designed for young people and most are not Devon specific.
One of the best ideas for involving young people came from a family history student of mine who wrote a series of illustrated letters to his ten year old grandson, as if from his grandfather (the boy’s great great grandfather). These involved a certain amount of Victorian local and social history research but worked wonderfully. If your descendants aren’t likely to read letters there are always emails, blogs or text messages!
Have a look at the television series ‘Horrible Histories’ – now presented by Stephen Fry and featuring such delights as ‘we sell any monk dot com’ and ‘The V factor’ (auditions for a Viking rock band). Yes, personally I preferred the books that spawned this TV series and the excellent, interactive website that goes with it and I do have to confess to being irritated with the leaping from Aztecs to the first world war and back to the Tudors (young people have enough trouble with chronology as it is) but here I am not following my own advice. I am a book person, young people, sadly, often are not. I must not want them to do it my way. Start with the TV programmes and the website, maybe that will lead on to the books. I’ve yet to find a 7-13 year old who doesn’t like this series.
For young people who will sit still for more than a millisecond, you could create a photograph album together. Most family tree software will allow drop-line pedigrees with photos which could also help. I know many of you do try to involve young people but for those who feel that it isn’t possible to interest the younger generation, that just isn’t so, it just has to be done THEIR way. Get them young. Give me a child until they are seven and I will give you the person who will want to inherit your historical research. Over to you.
If you want to hear more on this theme, book me for my ‘Harnessing the Facebook Generation’ talk or I can advise on running a young persons’ day for local and family history groups. Several books have been written to encourage younger family historians. Particularly recommended are Anthony Adolph’s Who am I? The Family Tree Explorer (Quercus 2009). Emma Jolly’s Family History for Kids (Pymer Quantrill Publishing Ltd. 2007) and Jane Starkie’s Hw 2 *t Ur Fmly Hstry (FHP 2008). There are a number of “fill in the gaps” family history books for younger children. Zap the Grandma Gap by Janet Hovorka (Family ChartMasters 2013), with its accompanying workbook and website is full of ways in which adults can help to inspire the younger generation with a love of family history.