I’m the anti-bandwagon person. Usually if something takes off running with masses and masses of support I’m the one that’s standing behind, crossed-arms, digging my heels in and refusing to become part of the hysteria. It was no different with the show Who Do You Think You Are?, a program sponsored by Ancestry.com and NBC featuring the genealogical journeys of seven well-known celebrities. I was skeptical to say the least, especially after ABC’s bust of a show Find My Family. I had originally been really excited about ABC’s new program, thinking that it would bring some mainstream exposure to genealogy in general. However, the one hour show spent most of its time with cheesy dramatic build-ups and relatively little advice or explanation on how these genealogical revelations were researched. I spent more time fast-forwarding through TiVo time than I did actually watching the program. I was worried that Who Do You Think You Are? would be the same dramatic nightmare.
I finally caved and added one episode to my TiVo’s programming and hoped for the best. I was pleasantly surprised! Of course, there were some dramatic recaps through out the show, and teasers of what was to come, but they weren’t nauseatingly overdone and they were quick and to the point so that the show got on its way without too much delay. I enjoyed seeing how researchers, librarians, and historians helped to locate records and people who were actually present for the events that were being searched for. The episode that I saw was Lisa Kudrow’s search for the truth of her family’s Holocaust story and the mystery relative who brought the news of her family’s murder to the United States. The way that the producers wove the story together was heart-wrenching, but very respectful of Kudrow’s ancestors and the people who shared their stories with her. My family does not have hardly any Eastern European Jewish history, so I was unfamiliar that there were records kept for the Holocaust massacres. It was shocking to find out that there were detailed lists kept for these events.
While I thought the show was very well put together, featured and emphasized actual records in the process of researching family history, added elements of history and oral history which really help to flesh out the stories of our ancestors there was one thing that bothered me. All seven episodes of this show feature the genealogical journeys of celebrities. Celebrities, in general, are in the minority. They are generally wealthy and well-known and are able to use their name to influence others to reach a certain outcome. While that sounds like I’m implying that they’re greedy and manipulative, that’s not at all my point. Instead, what I am suggesting is that the type of research that the show hats presented is not the ordinary research that the general public will be able to undertake. Kudrow flew to a village in Belarus, not far from Minsk to begin her journey and then from there to Poland. Most people’s genealogical budget doesn’t allow for cross-continent travel, and if one does have that budget often they have saved for years to go to just a single repository! Additionally, at each stop, the archivists had pulled the exact records that would lead Kudrow closer to finding the answers to her family history questions. Rarely does that happen in day-to-day genealogy either. Even if a researcher would call ahead, it is uncommon for the records to be pulled and to have a private audience with the archivist to explain the records and to hand feed it to you! How often have we spent hours and hours of time scrolling through microfilm and indexes before we find just the record we’re looking for only to have the archivists and volunteers tell us that they’ll be closing in 5 minutes??
I am certainly excited that genealogy is getting mainstream exposure on a show that is well produced and interesting. However, my fear is that people interested who have no knowledge of genealogy will go into the process thinking that it is simple, quick, and rewarding. Often we’re hit with brickwalls, frustrations, and fear that we may never find the answer because of lost or destroyed records or because our ancestors simply weren’t literate or didn’t live a paper footprint. Hopefully, future episodes of this program will show that genealogy can be wonderfully rewarding but that it’s always leaving you with more questions than what you started with!