Why “Who Do You Think You Are” Being Easy is a Good Thing

Season 2 of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are premiered last Friday night. Facebook statuses and Twitter feeds were ablaze with updates (much to the chagrin of some on the west coast). Episode 1 featured Vanessa Williams and her search for her father’s side of her family.

The feedback that I saw from genealogists, librarians, and archivists was positive. The format was an improvement over Season 1’s constant recaps after every commercial break. (Did they think the audience would forget *everything* in those 2 minutes?) Williams also took notes throughout the episode, making her at least appear to be a more active participant than some in Season 1.

The episode had good drama. Williams discovered an ancestor who fought in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and another who was a state legislator in Tennessee during Reconstruction. It was moving without being melodramatic. It showed good resources without being pedantic.

Yet, there are complaints that WDYTYA makes genealogy look “too easy.” “People are going to expect that they can just walk into a library or courthouse and get everything handed to them.” “What about the hours of research that went into what we saw?” “What about the female lines? We didn’t hear anything about them.” The list goes on.

There’s a saying in writing: “Know your audience.” WDYTYA’s audience isn’t the die-hard genealogist who can code a surname’s Soundex code by hand. Its audience is the person who enjoys learning about celebrities and who might also be interested in some form of family heritage activity.

Let’s be honest — sitting and watching someone search for names in a database isn’t very exciting. (It can be exciting for the person doing the searching, but not for a passive viewer.) It’s also isn’t very riveting to watch someone at the courthouse dig out the Grantee’s Index, find all the entries for Mr. Such-And-So, and then dig out all the books with those references. (Again, it can be exciting for the person doing the searching, but not for the person watching.)

That’s where WDYTYA knows its audience. They want to see the results. And WDYTYA does genealogy a HUGE favor, in my opinion: It shows enough of the research to make it look exciting to do. Would people get excited about climbing their own families trees if WDYTYA showed all of the frustration that can come with research?

WDYTYA isn’t supposed to be about the best research methodologies. It isn’t supposed to be about proper documentation. It isn’t supposed to be about how to tackle those brick wall problems. It is supposed to be about the excitement of the chase and the thrill of connecting with generations past.

The challenge — the opportunity — for those of us in the profession is to keep that excitement alive for people, while at the same time introducing them to some of the less-thrilling aspects of research. I’m thankful that WDYTYA keeps the emphasis on excitement. It’s that spark that might ignite in some people a desire to start their own quest. We can teach them about methodology after they get here.

What are your thoughts?

Elton John and Bernie Taupin, genealogists?

Elton John has long been regarded as a gifted songwriter. Besides his numerous top 40 hits, he has written for stage (Aida, The Lion King, Billy Elliot) and screen (The Lion King). Along the way, he has won five Grammy Awards and a Tony (for Aida). He and longtime musical collaborator Bernie Taupin have been creating music since 1967.

I’ve been an Elton John fan for a long time. Growing up, I even had a poster of the cover of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” on my bedroom wall. I have a rare copy of “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” on yellow vinyl. What I didn’t realize until today is that either Elton John or lyricist Bernie Taupin (or perhaps both) is a genealogist.

What made me realize this is the name of Elton’s new son Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John. “Levon” is a song off his album “Madman Across the Water.” That by itself isn’t proof, but think of the song. “Levon” is a great genealogical song. In it, we learn:

  • Levon was born “a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas Day, when the New York Times said ‘God is dead and the war’s begun. Alvin Tostig has a son today and he shall be Levon.’ ” (So we have a date of birth and father’s name.)
  • Levon has a child Jesus, so named ” ’cause he likes the name.”
  • “Levon” might be a family name (“And he shall be Levon, in tradition with the family plan.”)
  • Levon has a war wound (though we don’t know if he was in the military or was a civilian casualty).
  • Levon has a family business selling cartoon balloons in town. Jesus works there, too, blowing up balloons all day. Levon appears to be successful, as he spends his days counting in a garage by the motorway.
  • Jesus goes to the finest school in town. (Also, if we lose track of Jesus, we might want to look in Venus, since Jesus wants to go there.)

How many other popular songs contain that many genealogical references?! We have three generations, a date of birth, and information about occupations, schools, and possible military service.

Consider, too, the name of Elton John’s album from the late 1980s “Reg Strikes Back.” “Reg” is a reference to his real name (Reginald Kenneth Dwight).

Put the three together (the name of Elton’s son, all of the genealogical references in “Levon,” and the album “Reg Strikes Back”) and I believe that you have a case that Elton John and/or Bernie Taupin is a genealogist. (I wonder how long before one of them will be on the British version of Who Do You Think You Are.)

Why would he do that?

I’m a bit of a stickler about grammar. I cringe when I see things like “Its snowing now” or “Their going to the movies.” Similarly, it bothers me when I read especially bad sentences.

In yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch, there was a short article about a man who was charged with negligence in the death of his daughter in a car accident last year. The sentence read:
“He was charged with failure to restrain his unbelted 12-year-old daughter, Jessica, after she died in a Feb. 22 crash in which another vehicle slid across the center line and struck his van on an icy Rt. 22.”

I know that is not what the reporter intended to say. (At least, I hope that’s not what the reporter intended to say!) Why would the man restrain his daughter after she died?

The incident was a tragedy and I don’t mean to sound flippant. But that sentence is so poorly constructed that it has bothered me ever since I read it yesterday. I think I need to turn “editor mode” off every now and then.

Stayin’ Alive

I love music — all kinds of music. I’m also a big fan of mnemonic devices. (Any one remember Roy G. Biv?) So when I heard this report on the news this morning, I had to smile. Researchers at the University of Illinois knew that people doing CPR commonly do the chest compressions too slowly. The ideal rate is 100 compressions per minute. It turns out that the Bee Gees’ hit “Stayin’ Alive” is 103 beats per minute — and doctors and students who heard the song did the compressions at the correct rate. It’s an easy song to remember and the title fits the situation, so perhaps this will be a good musical mnemonic device.

I do see one drawback. What if you panic and use the wrong Bee Gees song? “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” really wouldn’t work out.

(I realize this has nothing to do with genealogy or history. This falls under the “whatever else crosses my mind” category :-) )

The New Historical Scholarship

For a long time now, it has been said that historians do not value genealogy, choosing instead to focus on the “big picture” while considering the lives of everyday people unimportant to their studies at hand. Ever since returning to school (and, in fact, since I heard Dr. James Madison speak at the 2005 Midwestern Roots conference), I have not believed that to be the case. All of my history professors have had positive reactions to my being a genealogist. In fact, I am now a student assistant for one of my professors because of my experience as a genealogist.

Last night in my reading for one of my classes, I found the following quote about the new historical scholarship. From the essay “The Changing Face of Reformation History” by Andrew Pettegree in The Reformation World (Andrew Pettegree, ed. New York: Routledge, 2000):

It is perhaps here that the new trends in historical scholarship have impacted most profoundly (and not simply in the field of Reformation studies). It is now accepted that it is possible to write the history of ordinary people; indeed, no presentation of the past is real without such an attempt.

Some historians may not see the value of tracing a lineage, but they have recognized that the study of ordinary people — which is what we as genealogists/family historians do — is vital to historical scholarship.

Getting to Know Me, Getting to Know You — Amy’s Genealogy, etc. Blog

Terry Thornton at Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi has issued a challenge to the Genea-Bloggers group on Facebook. In order for help everyone get to know us and our blogs better, we should share at little bit about ourselves, our goals for our blogs and examples of our “Best, Breeziest, and Most Beautiful” posts.

I’m a genealogist (you probably could have figured that out on your own ). My focus recently has been on developing genealogical databases and websites. I’m the former webmaster for the Ohio Genealogical Society and am the creator and developer of DeafBiographies.com. My goal for Amy’s Genealogy, etc. Blog is to educate researchers and to share some neat things I’ve come across. I’m also a full-time student at Ohio State University – Newark where I am majoring in history.

Now, for the posts:

1. Best Post: Tombstone Tuesday: How old is that tombstone? at http://familytrees.wordpress.com/2008/07/09/tombstone-tuesday-how-old-is-that-tombstone/ This one sums up what I hope to do with this blog: give some information about genealogical research and share some things that I’ve found along the way.

2. Breeziest Post: Waxing Nostalgic and a Seriously Cool Bag at http://familytrees.wordpress.com/2008/07/27/waxing-nostalgic-and-a-seriously-cool-bag/  This was tough, because I think this is one of my “best” posts. Since Terry said that “breezy” can mean “provocative”, I put it here.

3. Most Beautiful Post: Christmas Memories at http://familytrees.wordpress.com/2007/12/22/christmas-memories/  I chose this one because it is the post I feel the most “invested” in.

To those of you who read my blog regularly, I promise that I will resume posting Tombstone Tuesday this week (as well as give an explanation of where it’s been the past few weeks).

Please feel free to leave a comment so that I can get to know you a little bit better, too. Thanks for stopping by!

So Many Records… So Little Time

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m behind in posting Tombstone Tuesdays. In fact, I’m behind in posting darn near anything!

The problem has not been a lack of things to write about. On the contrary — I have LOTS of things to write about. The problem is time and the lack thereof. As I have mused to my friends and colleagues, it is an unfortunate truth that labors of love are often pushed aside by labors of “gotta do.”

Don’t get me wrong — I love my day jobs. I truly enjoy preparing materials for the websites I work on. I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of working on some very interesting projects. But as I’ve discovered as I’ve delved more deeply into various records, websites and blogs, there are more records and resources available than any of us could hope to cover completely in our lifetimes.

That thought could be rather depressing. I’m trying instead to think of it as a challenge and a comfort. It is a challenge to get through as many meaningful, interesting resources as possible. It is also a comfort to know that we as researchers will never be bored.

Waxing Nostalgic and a Seriously Cool Bag

What do we think about the past? That might seem like an odd question for genealogists, but I think it is one worth exploring.

Slane & Johnson Texaco -- "You can trust your car to the man who wears the star."

Slane & Johnson Texaco — “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star.”

Recently, I’ve become rather fascinated with old signs. Whether neon, electric, or vacu-formed, they seem in stark contrast to today’s polished, glossy, designed-by-the-marketing-department signs. Some sign aficionados say that the old signs herald back to a simpler, more innocent time. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but I do think it is a time we tend to gloss over.

What Is “The Past”?

“The past,” for many of us, is something before 1900. Yes, we’ve interviewed our living ancestors and we’ve driven past the house where Mom or Dad grew up — but there is so much more. What about the grocery stores, hardware stores, and service stations where they went about their daily business? What about the movie theaters, restaurants, and bowling alleys where they spent some leisure time?

So much of what they and we grew up with is disappearing. Think about your own hometown and how many landmarks of your youth are now the site of a Walgreens.

(I’m kicking myself for not having a picture of the Kahiki, a Polynesian-style restaurant on the east side of Columbus, complete with tiki torches, palm trees, and flaming statues that flanked the front door. It was torn down a few years ago for a Kroger store. “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…”)

I suppose it is a relative thing, but I feel a bit sad that our children often don’t have the unique places that we had. There was only one Rubino’s Pizza and it was “ours,” including the too-tall counter and the pinball machine in the back. Somehow, meeting the gang at Starbucks loses something. Yes, they hopefully will still make great memories there, but there won’t be that “special-ness” about the place. Walk into one Starbucks and you’ve pretty much walked into them all.

What Will We Remember?

"A Granville Tradition" (and was a good place to eat!)

Evergreen Restaurant: “A Granville Tradition” (and was a good place to eat!)

Some of my relatives have asked “Why would you want to hear about that” when I’ve asked them about their youth. They can’t imagine that something so common-place, so ordinary to them would be of interest to anyone else. I fear the same thing is happening with the commonplace, ordinary things of our own more recent past.

So how does the seriously cool bag fit in? I recently purchased a new bag with Route 66 icons on it — the Route 66 sign, classic cars, vintage hotel signs, and roadside attractions. While standing in line at the post office this week, I was tapped on the shoulder by a kind-looking woman, easily in her 80s. “Oh, honey, I love your bag! Is it new?” I told her it was, that I had purchased it just the weekend before. With a gleam in her eye, she said, “Oh how that brings back some memories.”

I doubt she would have said that if I had a Starbucks bag.

How About You?

Is there a place that is special to your past that has been paved over? Is there a place that you’re glad is still standing? Tell us about it!