Anne Attwood, the principal of Furness College, extols the virtues of the internet but also highlights the need to teach people to look at other sources when carrying our academic research
Broccoli, salmon, spinach - they might make an interesting quiche for my great-nephew’s christening, but which recipe to use?
I could have started working through some of the cookery books, but I didn’t: I went straight to the iPad and searched the net.
Without getting off the sofa, I had found, sifted and chosen a recipe which worked.
Do we still need those cookery books? A whole generation thinks we probably don’t.
When my cousin started to research one branch of our family tree, over a decade ago, she went to the reference library in Liverpool and slowly worked her way through the original documents. When I started the same thing a few years later, I bought a subscription to a genealogy website.
Within days, I had retraced my father’s footsteps back to his roots. He was a Scouser, born and bred, but his father had come to Liverpool via Woolwich Barracks and started his journey in Blackburn.
I knew that much (or thought I did) but when I checked into my great-grandmother I discovered something I couldn’t quite believe.
My journey to South Lakeland has taken me from Liverpool to London and a long time on Teesside before crossing back over the Pennines to a new home near Kendal. I never dreamed that I might be returning to a very old home.
My granddad’s mother, Barbara Bowman, was listed on the 1901 census as being born in - Westmorland.
With the click of a mouse, I followed her trail back to Kendal and to her birthplace in Hogg’s Yard, now commemorated with a plaque (the Yard, that is, not my great-grandmother).
Her father was John Bowman, who was born in Kendal – and there the trail goes cold. With a name like ‘Bowman’, he could go all the way back to Agincourt – but most of the online records stop in 1837. I’m looking forward to taking my search further by getting stuck in to the manual records and tracking them down.
More research showed another branch of the tree coming from Hawkshead (I’m related to the manifold Barkers, apparently), so, when anyone refers to me as an ‘offcomer’, I can happily point to many Lakeland ancestors.
The same resources unearthed a treasure-trove when we put on an exhibition telling the history of Furness College. We were able to look at the census to see where the early lecturers came from and what their families were like – this brought the history to life in ways that the committee minutes could never do.
Those discoveries, and my search for the perfect quiche, got me thinking about how my generation looks at research.
To me, it meant libraries, books, index cards and cross-referencing.
To the students at my college, ‘research’ means Google. That’s it – one word does all the work for them.
But the internet doesn’t contain everything – nor is it perfect.
Every child is born with an urge to learn; my great-nephew is learning to walk at the moment, and you can see in his eyes that he wants to talk to his sister (if she’ll let him get a word in).
In everyone, learning is an instinct and the best schools and colleges encourage that instinct, but how do we teach students to revert to manual searches?
How do we get them to appreciate that the top hit on the search engine is often an advert?
As some sources retreat behind paywalls (as all News International titles have done), how do we get them to appreciate the holes?
I’ll have to look up the answer to that one.
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