We recently caught up with Dr Imogen Wegman, course convenor for the University of Tasmania/ALIA course Family History for Library and Information Professionals. Dr. Wegman discusses her background, what people can expect to gain from the course, and the important role that libraries play in helping people start and develop their own family history projects.
Dr Imogen Wegman
Firstly, we’d love to learn a little bit about you: what you do, where you work, your areas of interest and expertise and anything else you’d like to share.
I’m a historian at the University of Tasmania, where I teach in the Family History program. I’ve been involved in the program since almost its beginning, first as a tutor while I finished my PhD, and now as a Lecturer in Humanities. I research the relationship between people and the land in the early colonies, and am interested in how Europeans shaped the lands they arrived to, but also how they were shaped by the land they found and influenced by pre-existing First Nations land use. Most of my research has focused on Van Diemen’s Land so far, but my next project will start to compare VDL with colonies in North America. My research uses a lot of visual sources, and I am a complete map nerd who loves nothing more than fossicking in the abundance of digitised map collections now available online, or peering over huge maps at the archives.
Can you give us a brief overview of the course, what it offers, and what participants can expect to come away with?
This course is designed for librarians, archivists and other information professionals whose jobs involve helping family historians with their research. The course doesn’t assume that all participants have any background in family history, and will give an overview of Family History fundamentals, such as terminology and basic principles. We will discuss different types of information used by family historians, along with some of the problems that the participants should watch out for when assisting clients in research. Finally, this course will consider the ethics and challenges that every fami ly historian should be aware of. This course is structured to teach the teachers: to equip frontline library and information professionals with information and tools that will assist in interactions with clients. We encourage a collaborative learning environment through hypothetical scenarios and discussion boards where participants with family history research experience can share their thoughts to benefit others.
Why did you decide to run the course - is it a response to increasing numbers of people becoming interested in researching their family’s history using library resources? Or other factors?
The Family History (FH) program has been running for more than seven years now, and we know most of our students use archives and libraries extensively in their research. We know, for example, the Tasmanian Archives sometimes see a spike in requests for assistance when assignments are nearly due with us. I spent eighteen months working as a casual on the Hobart reference desk of Libraries Tasmania and occasionally met my own students as they wrote an assignment to send to me in my other job! More generally, family history is always a popular pastime, but one that requires specific expertise, especially for those who want to learn more than the basic names and dates. In conversations with members of teams from different libraries and archives around Australia, it became clear to us that staff wanted to help family history researchers more but didn’t know where to start. This course is a collaboration between UTAS and ALIA to equip staff so they can give the best help to clients without becoming intimidated by the size of the task!
What can you tell us about the course instructors and their areas of expertise?
This course has been developed by me and Dr Kate Bagnall, the Family History course coordinator at UTAS. Both of us have worked in different libraries and archives, and have been teaching family history at a university level for several years. Kate researches Chinese-Australian migration, and is an expert in naturalisation and migration history. My research looks at the lives and decisions of ordinary people in the early colonies, but I am also a public historian with a passion for bringing history into public spaces. Both of us are experienced communicators and skilled at ‘translating’ research for different types of audiences, from school kids to senior clubs to professional historians. We find this is a crucial skill in teaching family history, as our students have different levels of education and different goals for completing the course.
How often will the course run and where could people go to develop their skills further upon completing the course?
The course runs in September and October this year, and it is planned to run again in 2023. On completion of the course, participants could stay with us to study an Undergraduate Certificate in Family History (four units) or a Diploma of Family History (eight units). Genealogical societies around Australia run regular training events, check the Australian Federation of Family History Organisations (https://www.affho.org/index.php/about/members) to find an organisation near you.
What services and resources do libraries and library and information professionals offer for family history research?
Historians are reliant on libraries and archives – we couldn’t do our jobs without the enormous effort that goes into preserving, cataloguing and sharing all the books, documents and other miscellany that are stored within the stacks. Family historians are no different, and are especially reliant on local collections which are where the nitty gritty of social history often lives. Family historians use these collections to find out both the details of an individual life and contextual information, which means they will want to access vital records such as baptismal and electoral rolls, but also local histories and subject-specific histories. The patrons who approach library and information professionals may have a very specific question borne out of thirty years of research, or it may be their very first step into family history research. Both need clear guides to the records that explain content as well as context, although some will need more help searching for and understanding sources than others.
The Family History for Library and Information Professionals runs from 26 September to 3 November. For more information and to register, click here.