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Social Networks of Information Seeking and Lifelong Learning: The Case of Genealogists Exploring Their Irish Ancestry

Dr. Crystal Fulton

Sparking Synergies: Bringing Research and Practice Together @ ASIST '05 (ASIS&T 2005)
Westin Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina, October 28 - November 2, 2005


Abstract

Genealogy may be characterized as serious leisure, that is an amateur or voluntary activity in which the hobby forms a central life interest, with participants actively acquiring and expressing special skills, knowledge and experience (Stebbins, 1996; 1997). Information skills development and information exchange are key features of genealogy. Amateur genealogists are very often older adults who have retired and have time to devote themselves to lifelong learning of information and technical skills needed to navigate the complex maze of resources that support this activity.

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.

References:

Burnett, G., M. Besant, and E.A. Chatman. (2001). Small Worlds: Normative Behavior in Virtual Communities and Feminist Bookselling. JASIST, 52 (7): 536-547. Chatman, E.A. (1999). A Theory of Life in the Round. Journal for the Association for Information Science, 50: 207-217. Garfinkle, H. (1964). Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities. Social Problems, 11: 225-250. Information Association Policy Unity. (2002). New Connections: A Strategy to Realise the Potential of the Information Association. Dublin: Department of the Taoiseach. Miles, M.B. and A.M. Huberman. (1994). Qualitative Data Analysis. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Stebbins, R.A. (1996). Casual and Serious Leisure and Post-Tradtional Thought in the Information Age. World Leisure and Recreation, 38 (3): 4-11. ___. (1997). Casual Leisure: A Conceptual Statement. Leisure Studies, 16 (1): 17-25. Stokowski, P.A. (1994). Leisure in Society: A Network Structural Perspective. New York: Mansell Publishing. Wellman, B. (1997). An Electronic Group Is Virtually a Social Network. In Culture of the Internet. Ed. S. Kiesler. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


  
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