Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why Genealogy on TV is a Good Thing

Well, I think I've reached my personal limit with regard to the nay-sayers about the various television programs that feature genealogy. I'm so tired of listening to the complaining. In fact, I tend to think that the nay-sayers are a small number, yet they seem to holler the loudest. And this isn't a new thing when it comes to genealogy.

When I was first online in 1995 I watched the Internet take off in an astronomically fast upward spiral with regard to genealogy. I started keeping track of my bookmarks for genealogy, which at that time printed out on one piece of paper. Within two years of the launch of Cyndi's List the total went from 1,025 to well over 26,000 links. And that is in the infancy of genealogy online. By the 3rd anniversary the site had more than 20,000,000 visitors to the front page. Clearly, the Internet was popular with people who were interested in their family history. And that is when the nay-sayers started their Internet-hate campaign. Some of the things I heard or read on a regular basis:
  • The Internet is a fad.
  • The Internet is going to kill libraries.
  • The Internet is going to kill genealogy societies.
  • The Internet produces junk genealogy.
  • The Internet encourages junk genealogy.
  • The Internet isn't for serious genealogists.
18 years later I think each of those statements have now been proven to be extreme, overly reactionary, and just plain wrong. First of all, the Internet isn't a magical machine bent on destruction. Genealogy online is the work of human beings. And it is up to the genealogists online, especially the veterans and the professionals, to make the Internet work for us as a positive thing. The Internet is a venue for publishing, education, archiving, backup, records access, meetings, and socializing. Each of those things can be used in a way to enhance everything we do in genealogy. But, back in the beginning, each of those things were seen as negatives when it came to the nay-sayers. Well, they were wrong. I'm wagging my finger at them and sticking out my virtual tongue. I believe that people now see the Internet as a valuable tool and an asset to libraries, societies, and the entire genealogical community.

In my opinion, what the Internet has done for genealogy has been a wonderful thing. Supposedly genealogy is the second most popular topic online. The Internet has made it easy for long-lost cousins to find one another. And it's easier to learn, to publish, to share, and to move forward in our research faster than we could have done in the past. This also means that more people are interested in genealogy now than before computers and the Internet. More people find it accessible. Prior to this it was the hobby of retired people and those who had the time and money to do a lot of traveling for on-site research. The Internet opened up research to people who were on tight budgets or housebound for a variety of reasons. Younger people and stay-at-home moms or dads can now spend time on genealogy. It is now a hobby for anyone that has an interest in learning more about their ancestors.

So, how do we take the next step to encourage people to become interested in genealogy? When I started in genealogy in 1980, in Washington state, I had no idea that there were genealogy societies or libraries with genealogy collections. I worked in a very small vacuum in the Pacific Northwest, with no money and no car to drive. It took me several years to learn about where to go and what to look for in my research. My first exposure to genealogy beyond my small world was the media. A syndicated newspaper column by Myra Vanderpool Gormley. Through Myra I learned about genealogy books and magazines, genealogy libraries, genealogy societies, and that there were actually large groups of people out there who were also interested in this unique hobby. Myra's column told me that there was more out there. Myra's column, because of the nature of a nationally syndicated newspaper column, didn't teach me everything I needed to know to turn me into the world's perfect genealogist. My expectation wasn't that I would learn everything I ever needed to know just by reading her column. But it did keep my interest alive and it prompted me to go look for more. My Grandma Nash & my Aunt Daisy gave me my first taste of family history. It was Myra's column that let me know that there was more to it than just compiling names and dates. If it wasn't for Myra, I wouldn't have gone further.

And with that I come to the point of this article. Television is good for genealogy. And I'm so tired of hearing the nay-sayers when it comes to the television programs Who Do You Think You Are? and the Genealogy Roadshow. In both cases genealogical research for the people featured on the show is presented in a one-hour time slot. There is no way to fit everything a person needs to know about how to do research for________ [fill in the blank] in a one-hour show. So, it isn't a reasonable argument to say things such as:
  • If I had money to travel all over the world, I could do that too!
  • Celebrities have it easy.
  • The show misleads people by making it look too easy.
  • Wouldn't it be nice to have a clerk just hand you the documents you need without any work?
  • They are just handing a bunch of stuff over without telling them how to do the research.
  • They make it look like you can find these things without any work.
  • They aren't teaching them anything about genealogy.
C'mon people! Really? Behind the scenes of the genealogy television programs there are teams of professional genealogists doing the research, sometimes for several months. And all the research they did wasn't necessarily included in the one-hour program. You know why? Because there was a lot of editing done to the thousands of hours of research and hundreds of hours of filming in order to condense it to a one-hour show. And because TV is supposed to entertain us and engage us and draw us in. The purpose of these shows is to highlight the topic, not to be the end-all educational option for genealogy. In the same way that Myra's newspaper column opened my eyes 33 years ago, these television programs are letting the world know that this hobby is fun and interesting and personal and enthralling. These programs are today's media outreach to a new generation of genealogists. Television producers and directors edit and present the programs to bring in the targeted audience. And we need to remember they aren't necessarily targeting us—the genealogists who already know how to research. Once that targeted audience is here, it is our job to help them learn and to point them in the right direction to become great genealogists. Let's get them in the doors first. To just unilaterally dismiss the television programs by portraying them negatively is short-sighted. So, I'm wagging my finger at you nay-sayers again. Let's see these programs for what they are, a positive and entertaining introduction to genealogy, rather than for what you think they should be. Quit with the negativity and the bad-mouthing. Because I said so.


Tina Sansone said...

Awesome article and so right on. You are awesome in keeping up the work for so many years.


Unknown said...

Totally agree with you Cyndi! I, for one, love watching Genealogy Roadshow just to see the people's faces when a family secret is revealed or mystery solved. Genealogists should be encouraged that so many people are watching and enjoying the shows - the more people that know about the hobby, the more help we will have in our research!

Unknown said...

I fully agree. I have Benn a part-time genealogist for about 30 years now. Working on my family tree initially using materials such as family bibles and letters. Without the money or time too travel, my research got off to a slow start.

With the introduction of the internet, it opened up a whole new world of not only research materials but also education.

I am not retired and due to a tragic loss of our home to wildfire in 2007 I have been working since then to rebuild our home and our lives. While I was able to save much of my genealogy research from that disaster, I did loose many of those original family letters. None of the family bibles were in the home at the time.

Genealogy is a hobby to me and one of the things that keeps me interested and setting my sights on my future genealogy work is blogs and websites online but also the TV shows you mentioned. While the naysayer thoughts you mentioned have crossed my mind, i go realize it is an hour long show and must maintain an audience. Someday this rebuilding work will be done and I will be able to again spend time on this host I love.

Thanks for your insight on this topic.


Celia Lewis said...

Yes, indeed! The people who turn up their noses and sniff in disdain... I feel sorry for them, because you just know they're not happy people.
Most people I've run into in genealogy, particularly on the web, have been generous, encouraging, positive, plain-good-people!
Thanks for another great post,
Cyndy. When I teach my beginner classes, Cyndi's List is the #1 resource!

brandibelle said...

ITA; tv is good for genealogy! No, it doesn't show the nuts & bolts of genealogy or the the frustration of a dead end. But instead of complaining what it doesn't do, celebrate what it does do;brings people to genealogy. More people, more research is being done. When you run into someone who only knows tv genealogy, take the time to teach them some of the tricks you've learned that someone taught you.

Gene Drees said...

I have heard the comment about the lack of reality concerning the research side of the show not being shown. I believe that is far outweighed by the thrill shown as ancestors are found. This can only encourage others to participate.

Shelina (formerly known as Shasta) said...

I agree with you Cyndi! Many people don't understand the purpose of diving into your family history. With these shows, they can see that there is fascinating information that can be learned, and that it does affect one's outlook on life having learned it. I am more motivated now to actually save up my $$ and take a genealogy vacation and go to the source of the records!

Carolyn Caplinger said...

I frequently see on many of these groups on Facebook and mailing lists and such online that researchers think they can find everything on their ancestors online. They search Ancestry.com or familysearch.org and find a birth record for great grandma in one family but can't find great grandpa from another line. I continually see this and have to constantly remind people that there are millions and millions of records in courthouses, museums, libraries and such that aren't online and will probably never be online in our lifetime. They need to stop relying solely on the internet to do their research.

Jane said...

You said it, Cyndi!

Unknown said...

I totally agree, Cyndi. I love watching anything on genealogy, it is very entertaining to me and I do learn little tidbits here and there. I started my genealogy online and haven't stopped for almost 20 years. Love it online and TV.

Denise McDonald

gophergenealogy said...

A great article. I will only add that it is a unique opportunity to watch some of our fellow genealogists in action in places we may never actually visit. They also provide a nice chance to take a break from the work that we do and be entertained in a most enlighening way.

gophergenealogy said...
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Brenda M. Lybbert said...

I agree. It's frustrating that the obvious needs to be explained/written about.

Myra Vanderpool Gormley said...

Television is powerful medium and I applaud the latest attempts to showcase genealogy. However, they(the shows)could be better. I don't expect these genealogy TV shows to please all of us all of the time, but I don't think we want to see a genealogy TV production done poorly or provide inaccurate information -- no more than we want to see a family history done poorly or sloppily in a rush to publish it. The stories of genealogical research and the histories of our ancestors can be presented accurately and also entertain us. To criticize some of the recent productions is fair and is not "naysaying" at all. One can criticize a less than excellent meal and poor service in restaurant, but that doesn't mean we want to shut the restaurant down. --Myra Vanderpool Gormley

Sheri Fenley said...

Ditto all of the above comments. The T.V. shows are meant to entertain and more importantly get the public interested in genealogy. Once the interest is there, they will seek out education. If these were shows that explained step by step how to research you can bet they would not be picked up for another season.

Unknown said...

Well said Cyndi,I too am over the naysayers and tend to surround myself with positive people and try to avoid the negative ones.

For those who watch WDYTYA? and wish they could go on a personal tour back to where their ancestors came from, they are in luck.

That is what I do at Customised Heritage Tours - see my website www.customisedheritagetours.com for more information.

I take the research that has already been done, and with the help of expert researchers in the relevant areas, build on that and create a personalised itinerary for each guest. We put the stories around the names, dates and places and then go on a very personal journey of discovery.

Thanks Cyndi for your ongoing commitment and hard work, it IS appreciated by many of us.

Jana Iverson Last said...


Thank you for your awesome post!

I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/10/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-october-11.html

Have a wonderful weekend!

Myra Vanderpool Gormley said...

Cyndi – thank you for the kind words about my old newspaper column – Shaking Your Family Tree -- on the subject of genealogy. I enjoyed writing it and learned much along the way. I have been pleased to hear from many people through the years who came into this delightful avocation because of it. I hope the new television programs you mentioned recently will be instrumental in introducing more people to our hobby. Television is a powerful medium and because of this, these programs must be extra careful to present accurate historical and genealogical information. When they don’t do so, regardless of where the fault lies, then they can be taken to task justly in this regard. That does make one a “naysayer.” Genealogy is full of wonderful stories of drama and history and I believe these TV programs can be improved. They should entertain and educate us, but just because they are about genealogy does not mean they are without flaws or that we can’t point out inaccuracies and failings. Just because I criticize a restaurant for a poorly prepared dinner and sloppy service does not mean I want to shut the restaurant down. --Myra Vanderpool Gormley

Judith Richards Shubert said...

Great post! I love anything that pertains to genealogy and am encouraged to find so many young people interested in finding out more about their family history. I agree TV is a good thing to draw them in, and it is a source of entertainment and can even be a learning experience at times for those of us who are more experienced!

Thanks for all that you have done for genealogy, Cyndi!

Anonymous said...

I agree somewhere more than 90%. I don't object to the programs and what they do, but I do wish they would occasionally make a disclaimer that it's not as simple as they make it look (let's not even go into the ads of a particular sponsor, which imply that everything is available online). Given the way our society is today, too many people will get interested and then give it up as soon as they find they have to (gasp!) do some work.

Dave L

Barb said...

Yes, yes, yes! More exposure means people with the money, that want to make more money, will invest that money in scanning and preserving those records I want to find online. I could care less how those shows are chopped up, I like the entertainment of them and my kids will actually watch them with me and have even gotten a little interested in what I am doing. WIN, WIN, for me!