Recent research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates that more than 50 million Americans use the Internet for genealogy research, with genealogists comprising nearly a third of all users of digital libraries - libraries in which collections are stored in digital formats instead of print, microform or other media, and are accessible by computers.
However, almost no research has explored how those interested in genealogy - whether through an organization or just as a hobby - use digital libraries and what information they seek from the collections.
The UNT Libraries have received a $448,548, two-year National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop a user-centered design process that digital libraries with humanities collections can implement to improve the usability and effectiveness of the collections for targeted user groups, such as genealogists.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal grant support for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. With a mission of creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas, the Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development.
The National Leadership Grants support projects that have the potential to elevate practices in museums and libraries. UNT was one of six Texas libraries and museums, and the only university library in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, to receive a grant, which provides libraries and museums with funding for projects for up to three years.
Cathy Hartman, the UNT Libraries' assistant dean for digital and information technologies, says she and Dreanna Belden, the libraries' coordinator for grants and development, decided to apply for the grant to research the information needs of genealogists as they interact with the Portal to Texas History, which provides users with a digital gateway to collections in Texas libraries, museums, archives, historical societies and private collections. The Portal contains primary source materials, including maps, books, manuscripts, diaries, photographs and letters.
"Genealogists use the Portal to help them understand more about family history. They can go to the site and find information about the Texas town where their grandparents lived or what life was like for the time that their ancestors lived," Hartman says.
Belden says one woman found a funeral card on the Portal for her great-uncle, who was a reverend in Marshall, Texas. The image was provided to the Portal by the Marshall Public Library. Another user of the Portal, Belden says, found a photo of mourners at a mass burial service for victims of the 1947 industrial explosion in Texas City, Texas, and identified two of the mourners as a relative and the relative's neighbor.
She pointed out that although the Portal to Texas History is used by all age groups, genealogists who use the Portal tend to be older and female. One survey from the University of Michigan found that the average age of genealogists responding was 62, and the respondents had been engaged in genealogical research for an average of 18 years.
"The view of genealogy as an avocation for those in middle to later life generally proves out in research on these demographics," Belden says. "But most of the information on users of digital libraries focuses on college students and faculty researchers, who may use the libraries for only one subject by trying the searching functions. Genealogists, however, are lifelong learners who seek browsing pathways."
Belden and Hartman say members of the Texas State Genealogical Society and the Dallas Genealogical Society will be interviewed in focus groups to determine their information needs from digital libraries. The project, they say, will provide a road map for future studies of other targeted user groups.
"It will build a model for digital library interface development that includes a user-centered design approach," Hartman says.
UNT News Service Press Release
Nancy Kolsti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.