05 February 2011

Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA?) Slowly Improving


Last night season two of "Who Do You Think You Are?" premiered on NBC. I was anxious to see if the producers had listened to feedback from the genealogical community. Last year we were all excited at the announcement of the show. To see genealogy featured in a prime time network television show was and still is exciting because it introduces our field to the general community. A lot of people have a vague awareness of what we do, but that's where it remains––vague.

I don't have a lot of patience with television in general because of the commercials. I don't need people shouting at me telling me what to buy or how to be cool and desirable when I'm just trying to relax. I can handle the PBS type of advertisements, but that's about it. When you're not a habitual TV watcher and you tune in for something, it is just amazing how little substance there is. Most people have just gradually become accustomed to it, but I am not. So, I have very little patience with the fluff of recaps and previews, five minutes of programming and five minutes of commercials. On the other hand, I accept that that's how it is, and made allowances for it.

Sarah Jessica Parker at the 2009 Tribeca Film ...Image via Wikipedia

Last year it was so bad it was laughable. It was as if the producers assumed the general population functions with only half a brain. People aren't as dumb as they think! To make things worse, Ancestry.com had long commercials which seemed to blend into the show as if it were one long infomercial. There was a bit of overacting on the part of some (Sarah Jessica Parker for one, and her mother, too!), and it seemed as if they had missed the boat on finding just the right combination of entertainment and education.

Professional genealogists, including me, squawked and offered feedback. Our research method is thoughtful, methodical, multifaceted and careful––180ยบ away from the TV format. Most of us were just glad that genealogy had made it prime time and tried not to watch too closely. Besides, some of our colleagues were in the spotlight and we wanted to support them. We offered our constructive criticisms and were glad when a season 2 was announced.

As last season progressed, though, many of us were dismayed at the dumbing down of the actual research process. Celebrities were presented with the results of long hours of research as if it were to be easily found in any library.  Professionals know that it is not. Most people don't have any idea of what we do, so they need to learn about it in order to appreciate it, whether on the show or in our work. We're familiar with the concept of people starting from scratch. Many clients are in just that situation. They know very little about their family and want to present an aging parent with the family history, for instance. Part of what the professional does while negotiating with the client for the contract and then writing up a report is to instruct him or her on what we are doing. Ten hours spent searching for records is still ten hours of a researcher's time, whether the records exist or not. Courthouse fires, lack of indexes, unhelpful staff, decreased funding, ancestors who avoided the census taker and tax man, all mean that we don't always find what we're looking for. This had been totally ignored on WDYTYA. People got the impression that the records and artifacts exist for every ancestor. They don't.

So we all sat down last night, ready to micro-analyze the show, still excited, but jaded. In my humble opinion it is much improved over last year! The focus seemed to move away from the celebrity herself to her ancestors. While it is not the purpose of this show to teach genealogy, they nevertheless need to make the audience aware of issues that crop up. This time we saw them examine lots of records: military, land, census, cemetery, government documents and more. This is the essence of genealogical research: examining records, extracting information, and correlating it to provide proof of kinship. Vanessa Williams got excited at each tiny new discovery, which, after all, is how it works, and she even took notes. This heightened the sense of journey, as we felt more of the actual discovery process.

When Vanessa was lucky enough to have found a tintype of her ancestor, the archivist clearly pointed out that in twenty years of research she had never seen such a thing. It is extremely rare. So don't expect it! But that's why the Vanessa Williams segment made the show: it's unusual and dramatic. By putting that into perspective they accomplish three things: 1) they enhance the drama; 2) they educate the public; 3) they satisfy the professionals' wish to be clear about the research process. So, well done, producers!

There's one issue which hasn't been addressed overtly and that is proper care and preservation of original materials. We routinely rely on original and unique records, sometimes hundreds of years old. It is imperative that we stop and consider how best to care for each document. Even professionals can't agree about whether or not gloves should be worn. The very latest advice from state of the art institutions and repositories shies away from gloves because they make the user more clumsy and likely to damage delicate documents. Clean hands and page-turning spatulas, or rubber fingertips are becoming de rigueur. In either case, it is totally unnecessary for the celebrity to run her fingers across the ink in ancient registers, deeds and the like. If they think it's too dull for us to just read along, then use some snappy digital overlay or something. Ix-nay on the ingers-fay! The same holds true for holding a red pen a millimeter away from same. Not necessary and enough to get any researcher booted out of a repository. What's the harm in teaching these things? They come up naturally and to the producers' advantage, they enhance the mystery and rarity of the find. Doesn't take a genius, people. Fix this!

Rosie O'Donnell at a tailgate party before Bar...Image via Wikipedia
I notice that some people object to the use of celebrities  at all as subjects of the research. TV being what it is, I can understand why they started it this way, but they should consider doing it for "the little people." With celebrities you start off with a certain number of people already prejudiced again them, as is the case with poor Rosie O'Donnell. When the producers understand that the subject is the ancestors, not the celebrity, the show will improve. I wondered if they might consider having people send in requests for research into their family history, such as is done with reality shows like Extreme Makeover, arguing why they want to discover their roots. 

All in all, I was very pleased with the improvements made so far. I concede that they will not change the amount of commercial time, not some of the fluff. They still have a long way to go in creating the sense of mystery and drive to find that next piece of information lurking in a rare and elusive document. They aren't listening to their professionals who know the drama involved in each project. When they figure out how to portray that they will have a real hit on their hands.
Touch as little as possible!

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4 comments:

Cathi said...

Great blog post, Polly! Very well said. We do have to remember that we have years of experience with these records, and as professionals have a little bit of distance that allows us to be rational about things like touching the documents. I do think that there is something primal about reaching out and touching the paper that your ancestor held or saw, the words written about them, and especially his/her signature. I will admit that I've done it myself. (gasp!) I think that it is instinctual, and only overcome by experience.

J. Mark Lowe said...

Good points. As a fulltime genealogist, I often encounter original documents in use in the location where they are created. Deed Books are shelved, pulled off, flipped onto a copier, and reshelved. Active record offices are not considered archives, nor do they have the training. WDYTYA could easily have substituted copies of the documents she handled. The producers express the same thought that Cathi expressed - "there is something primal about reaching out and touching..." I noticed that there were several different shooting angles of the pen and the book - perhaps they encouraged her to point with that pen. I keep having to say - it is a TV show. If it was choice for an Archival institution to be included in the telecast or use digital copies in another facility - where is the best choice. Thank goodness we have wonderful archivists who are determined to protect their documents - and we need more users to keep funding levels growing for these valuable institutions.

Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt said...

@ Cathi, I agree that it's a very emotional experience but even the first time you encounter these things, there's usually someone there teaching you how not to damage them. She could hold them just as lovingly on her open palm, or by the margins. She doesn't need to rub her fingers across the ink. The only reason we learned by experience is that someone explained this to us. That's all I'm saying. Instead, here, she was told, "Sure, go head, you can touch it." Not quite the same.

@ Mark, just because active record offices aren't considered archives doesn't mean we shouldn't take care with the records. Or that we shouldn't make a point of teaching whenever possible. One of the best things about genealogy being in prime time is that it is a chance to talk about how precious these records actually are. Unique, usually, and improper usage will leave us with nothing in a hundred years. I'm not saying we need to harp on it, but even a quick mention would go a very long way. And as for the digital copies vs. real registers, I think they could use both effectively. Filming in the archives was one of the best parts of the show in my opinion. And yes, let's all fund our local institutions to the best of our ability!

Ezekias said...

I think it's hard to watch television at all when you are only tuning in to see a particular show you are interested in. The gimmicks, the repetition, the oversimplified emphasis on entertainment over information are all frustrating to viewers who are seriously interested in the subject matter. That being said, any attention that can be given to genealogy is very welcome.