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The impact of the Internet on genealogy has been tremendous, marked by the rise of both personal and commercial websites devoted to the subject. Indeed, genealogy represents the second highest use of the Internet. Recently, the Information Association Policy Unit, Department of the Taoiseach (2002) in Ireland identified older adults as an information poor group. There would appear to exist some role for genealogy as a means of lifelong learning for older adults.
The Internet provides a forum for information exchange among genealogists, a place where genealogists can participate in a virtual community of information seekers and learners. Virtual communities facilitate small worlds, such as listservs, chatrooms, etc., by allowing their participants to interact as though no computer mediation was involved. As Burnett et al. (2001) note, virtual communities provide useful contexts for studying the exchange of information and emotional support in a social network.
Normative behaviour theory offers a useful theoretical framework through which to understand information behaviour in the context of the small world of genealogy (e.g., Burnett et al., 2001; Garfinkle, 1964; Chatman, 1999). Under this theory, we can understand how amateur genealogists navigate information by exploring the social norms, community perceptions of importance, classification of social types in the community, and information behaviour adopted by community members. Through an analysis of social networks involved in genealogical communities, we can further learn about the various connections genealogists form with one another and how these links support information behaviour (e.g., Stokowski, 1994; Wellman, 1997) and learning.
This paper explores the social networking and information seeking of amateur genealogists through their participation in a project discussion list, as well as through telephone interviews with project participants located in various countries around the world. Data were analyzed using network analysis to establish patterns of communication and links between and among amateur genealogists, groups, and resources. Findings reveal that amateur genealogists are often self-taught and actively seek to learn on an ongoing basis. In doing so, they rely on networks of individuals close to them as well as on chance meetings with unknown, like-minded researchers, supporting Granovetter's Theory of Weak Ties.
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