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.