Sunday, April 19, 2015

Some Lessons Learned from WDYTYA

Out of the several current television shows with a primary focus on genealogy1 I find that TLC's Who Do You Thing You Are?2 is the most interesting to me. Much like the Canadian History Channel's earlier Ancestors in the Attic you get to follow the trail of research and learn about some of the resources used. Unlike Ancestors in the Attic where they helped the average person, WDYTYA focuses on a family branch or two of a celebrity. Now the celebrity focus really doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is that they show some of the the leg work and also keep the brick and mortar buildings in the forefront of their research toolkit.

Of course with only an hour of time, including commercials, the other 999+ hours of behind the scenes efforts of the researchers, archivists, and librarians are often glossed over or presented as a fait accompli. Yet we as the family historians often do the same when we give the 50 page descendants report to a family member. They don't realize the time and effort taken to find, analyze, and compile the information into something that is readable.

Another thing I enjoy about WDYTYA is reading the tweets of many of my fellow genealogists while the show is taking place. Even without a Twitter account you can follow the #WDYTYA hashtag in real time while the show is on or even go back and look at older posts.

So here are just some of my thoughts and lessons learn over the past several years of watching Who Do You Think You Are? I find myself repeating many of them when I live tweet during the East Coast broadcast.

It comes down to perspective. A person's motives are always complex. It is rare you find a truly good or evil person. What a person does in the past needs to be judged based on that time and not through your own personal bias.

Since our ancestors were either willing or unwilling participants in events you need to learn about the times they lived in. Why would a 15 year old become an indentured servant? Could it be that that was the price to pay for their passage to get away from a land struck with famine and poverty?

Something to keep in mind when researching: most documents aren't online, indexed, or digitized. WDYTYA does a great job in keeping idea this in the forefront. They may start with visiting but more often than not the celebrity ends up at a library or archive to find the actual document that connects them to the ancestor.

Before it is too late ask your living relatives about their life, their experiences, and what they remember about their ancestors. Often the starting place for the show is a visit to a relative to learn what they know or have in their possession. Sometimes the celebrity will express remorse that they didn't ask their parents or grandparents those all so important family history questions.

Many of the newspapers of the past had a very visible political bent. Keep that perspective in mind when reading those papers. Much like the political bent of some of the news broadcasts on television today the newspapers of the past were often also platforms for the political views of the owners and editors. If an article is talking about your ancestor in a glowing positive way or vilifying them check to see what the viewpoint is of the editor. If your ancestor was a Whig and the newspaper was owned by a Tory then their might be some bias in the words used to describe your ancestor.

Before visiting an archive you may want to contact them 1st to order the files. It may take a day or so to get them from the vaults. This is a very important detail to remember. When I visit Library and Archives Canada I see this often. Many times it is a visitor from out of town that comes by with only a day available to do research. However, because they didn't pre-order the material that is held in the vaults at the Preservation Centre in Gatineau they go away disappointed that they couldn't see the document immediately.

When doing US genealogy research make sure you know when the states formed & when the various borders changed (state/county). This not only applies to the United States of America but to any country. Why is this important? When borders change the documents stored in court houses and archives aren't picked up lock, stock, and barrel and shipped to the jurisdiction of the county, state, or country where the place now falls under. The files just stay where they are. So you need to learn about the border changes so you know where to look for that key document.

Remember to record the various spelling of the names of your ancestors. When searching records use those spellings in your searches. How we spell our surname right now isn't necessarily how it was spelled in the past (or even by future generations). Depending on who was recording the information it might not even be your ancestor that was doing the spelling. It could have been a town clerk or clergy member and they spelled the name as they heard it. Is the name spelled Houghten, Haughten, or Hutten?3

Always read the source details when looking at those index records. What is extracted is often only a portion of the full document! An index just provides enough information to allow you to find a person in the collection. What is often missing from the index are the details to confirm that the record really does apply to your ancestor. Always go to the document in question to read and analyze the contents before jumping to any conclusion.

Often the stops along the journey into your ancestors' past brings more joy than finally reaching your genealogy research goal. To aid in our research we should always set a goal. It helps us keep focused and keeps us from being distracted by the BSOs4 we come across. However, during this journey we should also stop and reflect on what we have discovered.

When doing your genealogy research you need to leave present day ethics aside & consider the events in the times they occurred. If you have a well off ancestor that lived in the southern United States in the early 1800s then expect to find that they may have owned slaves. It was just a normal part of their existence. Maybe you have an ancestor that fought in World War II for the Germans. That doesn't mean he was a Nazi but it could just be that he was fighting for his fatherland. Look at the situation through the eyes of those living at that time and don't be so quick to judge their actions.

So set aside some time on Sunday night at 10 pm to watch Who Do You Think You Are? on TLC and follow the live tweets (#WDYTYA) or catch up on the various US, UK, and Australian episodes on YouTube. You might just learn about some unknown resource or some interesting history.

1. PBS's The Genealogy Road Show, PBS's Finding Your Roots, and TLC's Who Do You Think You Are?
2. Often abbreviated as WDYTYA.
3. This was a real life challenge for me. The last various was a phonetic spelling found in the census.
4. BSO - Bright Shiny Object. Those records we stumble upon that drag us away from our current research goal.

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