Expanding Our Audience

What I Learned From Genealogy Roadshow

When I first started in family history I will admit to feeling a bit like an outsider. In school my friends and classmates spent their free time engaged in a variety of other activities – video games, sports, etc.

Me? I would literally rush home from school, drop my bags, and be out the door to a local library to continue my genealogy quest. To say I was a bit obsessed is an understatement. When others would think my hobby (and now my profession) was weird or abnormal I could never understand where they were coming from. When studying in college and graduate school, I would proudly share that I was a genealogist, only to be met with scowls, raised eyebrows, or blank stares.

Fast-forward to Monday evening. I had a group of new friends over for a casual barbeque and to watch the latest episode of Genealogy Roadshow. Even though I have spent a considerable amount of time with this group before, none of them has really ever asked what I do as a genealogist – they simply know that I am one.

Well, that certainly changed Monday evening. During the episode questions like, “how do you do that,” “can I do that,” “how do I get started,” flooded the room. Here sat a handful of under-thirty friends anxiously engaged in family history. As the episode ended one friend said (quite loudly), “more genealogy.” I was a bit stunned; I wasn’t sure what to share with them.

Looking at my bookshelves and my computer an initial instinct was to pull out the latest issue of my favorite peer-reviewed genealogical quarterly or log onto a family history website.  Giving it some further thought, I realized that they probably weren’t quite ready for that. So I went with another option, an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?. We watched, they asked questions, had their own conversations, and my feeling was that by the end of the night the group had a better understanding of genealogy – and what’s better – some even found themselves to be curious about their own family tree.

Here is the thing, genealogy is not exclusive to one group or type of individual – it is something for everyone. Many believe there are some right and wrong ways to “do genealogy,” but I firmly believe there is no right or wrong way to find an interest or get started in genealogy.  Over the recent weeks I have heard some amazing stories through e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, and in person from folks who have just discovered they are a bit curious about their family tree. Each time family history is on television our audience expands. Those of us who call ourselves genealogists have a heavy task ahead!

My conclusion? We need to give audiences more credit and be prepared to teach and to lead them into genealogy.

 

In nearly every case, those who have reached out for help are completely aware that the process of family history takes more than 15 minutes to complete. In fact many reference a relative who worked on their own family tree for several years. Many remind me of myself as a beginning genealogist and I still remain grateful to the genealogists who didn’t laugh, but instead helped me learn. Family history is a constant process of education and learning.

It is the responsibility of dedicated family historians to find ways to share the genealogical process with those who are curious, without presenting an overwhelming, life-long task.

 

I fully realize that what we see on television doesn’t mimic the real process. The documents that take us hours, days, months, and even years to find are flashed in a matter of three seconds and then swapped aside for the next part of the story. They are illustrations to a story – not the story itself.

It is easy for some of us to pick apart our favorite – or even our least favorite television shows – especially if they deal in a subject where we have some expertise. Sitting next to an environmental scientist during the latest documentary on global warming can be an experience. Those who are in the business of television production work to create a product that entertains – and many are experts at just that – creating stories, casting the right participants, filming from the correct angle, editing the story to fit within the constraints of a given episode, etc.  My point? It isn’t an easy task  – we only see 45 minutes of something that took hundreds of hours (beyond the family history research) to create.

Just as genealogists strive to become experts in carefully citing each source, delivering a full analysis, and preparing a detailed, in-depth research report – those in television product strive to become experts at creating, filming, and editing a story for the mass market. Ironically, both of us see our work shortened and reduced to a few short moments in time. There are times when both sides seem to be at conflict and there isn’t an immediate solution. My personal feeling is that there is room on both sides to provide constructive criticism and look for improvement.

To demonstrate, let me share with you one of my greatest – and most challenging moments – from Genealogy Roadshow. Before some episodes were filmed the crew, hosts, and others would gather for a production meeting to discuss the episode. During this process the hosts are sometimes asked to practice with the script.  These meetings were certainly full of a slew of acronyms and insider language that left my head spinning (OTF, VTR, PA, etc.). My face reminded me of the look others probably have when I start talking genealogy in terms of NGS, APG, and FGS. Feeling completely out of my depth, I realized it was my role to learn what things meant – after all I was about to spend 4 intense weeks immersed in this world. How did I learn? I asked questions, I read articles, and I observed. Now, I know I didn’t pick up on everything, but I certainly made the effort to be teachable about the world of television production.  One of my favorites? When “taillights” appears on a schedule it means the time that things are all packed up and everyone is leaving the set – and after long 18-hour days, everyone is looking forward to taillights!

During one of these first sessions with my new colleagues, I had just spent about 15 minutes walking a family through their appearances in the United States Federal census, from 1850 to 1920. Just as I was set to continue I was politely stopped and asked what that all meant. Looking up, the blank stares in the room made it clear that this exercise had not captured the attention of the room. What I found fascinating, they found dull. I felt a bit like that 12-year old at the school lunch table again, who was waxing on about his latest find in a land record. I quickly realized I was completely out of my comfort zone. Yet, in front of me were those who were going to be running the cameras, deciding what to focus on, assisting in writing scripts, etc. I had utterly failed in explaining a series of records.

Not having been able to reach my conclusion (or any type of analysis for that matter), I was a bit stunned at what to answer. A bit frustrated, I looked to the story producers for some guidance. They really showed their expertise and asked me to point out ONE interesting thing from all those records.  Geez that was hard! There were so many interesting things that the research team had uncovered and that we could share from these records.

Using knowledge of what the records contained, I shared what I thought to be the most interesting element and we compromised. While I wouldn’t get to spend a great deal of time walking the participant through the census records, I would show them an interesting element from the records that built a larger story for the segment. It took time, patience, and understanding from everyone in the room.

Ironically? The following day during filming, as soon as the cameras stopped the participant asked me if I would spend some time (off camera) going over those census records, year-by-year because they really wanted to understand them.

The lesson learned: those who have a curiosity about family history will usually want to learn more, opening up a great teaching moment for the genealogist.

 

The experience was a teaching moment for me – and I found a deeper respect for the challenge of turning a 100-page, well-researched (and fully documented) research report into a concise story for a general audience.  Each short segment represents hundreds of hours (and dollars) spent by a production team to share just 20 hours of genealogical research with the world. Family history is a complex field – and we need to work to start an open dialogue with those who write, produce, and edit family history on television.  We should offer our help, assistance, and expertise without being negative or overly critical. Those on the production team are actually our fans, our promoters, and our friends. Of all the topics to choose from (celebrity dancing to misbehaving brides), they have chosen to devote their time, talents, skills, reputations, and money to our passion of genealogy.

I have heard from more than one member of the production team that they feel honored to be part of the family history experience. From those who work to cast participants – ensuring that there is a balance of diverse stories for a single episode to those who work to edit the material down to a concise entertainment package. Does it always turn out the way I would envision it? Certainly not.  My role isn’t to write the script or edit the footage – and thank goodness for that, my skills at writing screenplays and editing film are non-existent. After all, what is the trick and goal for many entertainers? To leave your audience wanting more. At the end of the day, I would rather see my passion for family history gain exposure to a wider audience, and provide more opportunities for family history to be shared, taught and pursued.

Disclaimer: The above thoughts are my own and do not represent the views of PBS, Krasnow Productions, findmypast.com, or the Federation of Genealogical Societies.
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