Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Who do they think we are?

Years ago, I used to watch the hour long episodes of Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr. By today's standards, the shows are tacky and poorly produced, but none-the-less I found them intriguing. Foremost in the series was the fact that Perry always solved the case in one hour. There were never any continuances, no one got sick and couldn't make it to Court, the Court never had to continue the case because of calendar problems. In short, Perry Mason was pure fantasy.

But guess what, in 37 years of law practice, I had to live with Perry Mason almost every day. Because of Perry and a host of other television lawyers and murder mystery cases, my clients had a universally inaccurate and twisted view of the U.S. Court system and how lawyers practiced their profession. In today's world we have Monk and Judge Judy to thank for perpetuating the myth of the easy solution to legal problems. I have one case that has gone on in one form or another for over 12 years. Try and condense that into an hour long TV show!

Now the genealogical world has its Perry Mason. A riveting show that solves all genealogical problems in an hour. I hesitated to write down my feelings about the show because of the almost uniform and enthusiastic press the show has received from the Bloggers. Recently, however, there has been a blizzard of opinions about making money from genealogy. Some of the articles have pointed out the realities of representing clients and billing for hours spent doing research. What I fear is that in the end, shows like Who Do You Think You Are? will do more damage to the practice of genealogy than many other issues in today's world.

One of the consistent depictions of the show is the star jumping on an airplane or driving to some distant location to find a record. The record is always found by a convenient librarian/researcher who just happens to stumble across the solution to the star's questions about his/her ancestor. What chance do you think you would have if you were looking for a record in some remote location of finding the record on the first day of your visit? Do you think that some helpful researcher or librarian would automatically be there to solve your research problem? By hiding the actual work that goes into genealogy, the show gives the impression that magically the records will appear. Granted, it is possible to find some records rather quickly and easily. But do I need to jump into my Lexus or limousine and drive to where the person was born/died/got married?

Yes, I may wish to travel to the ancestral home, but if I am doing genealogical research, I will have spent a lot of time preparing for the visit. Arranging accommodations, verifying access to the records, hiring researchers and taking care of the multitude of issues. On the TV program where were the star's flash drives? Driving to a location and finding a record is like having Perry Mason's witness confess on the stand.

We actually have people come into the Mesa Regional Family History Center and ask to see their genealogy. They expect their ancestry to be stored there in Mesa I guess. But that brings up another observation, none of the WDYTYA stars ever set foot inside of a Family History Center. During some of the shows I had my laptop open and checked, the same records the star had just traveled half-way across the country to see, were available at a local Family History Center on microfilm! I wouldn't mind traveling all over the world to find my ancestors, but I certainly don't have to do so, besides not being able to afford the trips.

Genealogy is a complex and challenging avocation and profession. Although publicity and raising awareness are laudable goals, we will all live with the stereotypes created by TV shows for a long time.


  1. I also agree about what your saying. And at the same time I dont think you want to watch the librarian search for days finding the documents. As for finding the stuff at the FHC where is the mystery and intrigue involved for the TV show :).
    I think it does make it look like genealogy is an easy thing to do, and that it probably does not cost alot of money to get results.
    I would have like it more if they took some not so famous people and did their ancestry.

  2. I agree completely and have not and do not intend to watch any of the WDYTYA shows!

  3. Yes, all valid points, but this is TV. I hope most of us understand how this show is produced and why it is produced. Like most (if not all) programming of either fiction, non-fiction and reality TV the shows goal is to entertain--I don't think the goal of Perry Mason was not to capture how criminal law works. It might be interesting to see one episode, not of a star, but on how a WDYTYA show is produced.

  4. That's a great analogy. I'd hope people realize everything on TV is compressed to fit the hour long format, plus commercials. However, anecdotal experience in this regard gives me a more cynical outlook.

    Making genealogy look easy is only one reason I don't like the show. Unless they'd hire me to research, or we happen to share recent ancestors, I couldn't care less about celebrities.

  5. It is just the instant gratification society we live in today. Another idea is the "I am entitled to everything" no wonder they think they can walk in a place and it will be handed to them.

  6. I agree it presents an unrealistic view how complex and challenging genealogy research can be. But I LOVE WDYTYA for one reason and it is a big one. It promotes interest in genealogy! The more interest, the more companies are willing to invest in providing resources, improved technology and a variety of other sources. It is my job as a genealogy professional to educate my clients about the reality of the research. The TV show is for entertainment and not for education. Lets get people excited about it - we all know in time they will discover its harder than it looks in an hour show.

  7. Hi, this is the first time I've ever commented on a blog...

    I would like to weigh in as a beginner (and perhaps not a great follower of rules)...

    Anyway, I have to say I really enjoy WDYTYA. All of the episodes.

    I've read and listened to lots of bloggers and their guests opinions. Your right, it is TV and it is sometimes a bit of a stretch. But as a reasoning human, I know that they are leaving things out, that it will take more than an hour to find exactly what I'm looking for, and that it's not going to be handed to me on a platter (unless I can afford to have people do it for me). I also know that I'm not going to find my true love by being on the Bachelor/Bachelorette or that I'll be the next rock star by singing on Idol.

    What I HAVE learned is that everyone is doing their genealogy for their own purposes and in their own way - whether they just want answers to a family mystery, want to learn how to be a genealogist, or want someone to find the info for them... or anything inbetween. Every episode has given me different perspectives. In an hour, it gives me the opportunity to visit places I have not been to (or maybe didn't even know existed), and experience peoples reactions to what they learn. It also gives me hope that I WILL find some great gems in the hunt (at whatever level I'm at) for my own history.

    Anyway, thanks for listening to a newbie's opinion.