Thursday, August 29, 2013

Is WDYTYA Good Or Bad For Genealogy?

There seems to be quite a bit of discussion about this topic. Like many genealogists I watched the Cindy Crawford episode recently and saw the lengthy scroll showing her connection to Charlemagne. The major complaint is that the show makes novices think that all they have to do is input a few names and voila, they can make their scroll. Obviously, anyone who has spent any time seriously looking into their family history can tell you that it simply isn't that easy.

So, is a show like Who Do You Think You Are (at least the American version) good for genealogy or bad?

Good: The show probably does get more people interested in learning about their ancestors, which I think we can all agree is a good thing. I'm sure it's all good as far as is concerned. They probably have more subscribers now than before the show aired in the US.

Bad: I think we can also agree that WDYTYA makes genealogy look simpler than it actually is. It would be nice if they did a behind-the-scenes show or included some interviews with the researchers on the DVD to discuss how much work goes into a single episode.

Good: The show might make the average person more interested in history if they can find a personal connection to it.

Bad: These same people may have elevated expectations after seeing the program, not realizing that the producers presumably pick the most interesting lines uncovered by the researchers. These newbies may feel gypped when they discover that most of their people were (to use my brother's words) “poor dirt farmers.”

Bad: Possibly lulled into thinking all Ancestry-suggested records must be for their people, newbies may mistakenly add records for the wrong person to their tree.

Yes, having people who add relatives willy-nilly to their trees is a bad thing. That's why you should always use common sense (a woman who is 70 is not still having babies) and verify any information before adding it to your own tree. Trees are great to generate clues, but again, you need to verify. So, what do I do when I find a tree that I can see has faulty information (like a 70-year-old still producing offspring)? I ignore it, of course. That information isn't going to hurt my tree so I don't let it bother me. When contacted by someone who thinks we have an ancestor in common, but a 5 minute comparison of multiple census records shows my Emma Taylor and her Emma Taylor with different husbands and different children in different places do I get upset? No, I tell her what I found, say I don't think it's the same person and continue on my merry way.

So, is WHYTYA good or bad for genealogy? To be fair, I think it is both. It raises awareness, but may encourage people who are not ready for the work involved to expect their scroll to be handed to them. Overall, I think the show is a good thing. If it leads people to become more interested in their ancestors and their history then that's great. There are always going to be people who want their ancestry handed to them on a silver platter. We know they are not going to get that unless they can pay some professionals to do the hard work for them.

Maybe we just need a good weeder. In college, organic chemistry was a good medical school weeder. We laughed that it separated out the pre-med students who were destined to be psychology majors from the pre-meds who actually went on to medical school. Maybe a two-week free trial on Ancestry is a good weeder (or at least it starts the weeding process). Either the newbies will figure out that genealogy requires effort and thought and continue following their family history and try to do things the “right” way or they will decide that they were misled, that genealogy is hard or not worth the effort.

There will always be newbies who don't know what they are doing (I know I didn't when I started) and have high expectations of what they'll find. Some will figure it out and others won't. It reminds me of when I was doing my Ph.D. One of my advisers told me “if it were easy, then everyone would do it.” I think the same applies to genealogy.

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