Monday, 14 June 2010

Have At Thee, BBC's 'Who Do You Think You Are'!

A celebrity walks into an archive, or a quaint country home. A cheerful archivist greets them pleasantly, offers them a seat and immediately opens a book the exact page on which said celebrity's ancestor's details are recorded. The television/film/musical star sits rapt as the librarian/archivist/historian weaves a wonderfully detailed tale catered solely for this particular person's family history.

Supporting documents are plucked from thin air, photos appear at the click of fingers, a previously stern figure weeps thrilling tears because his great granny once had to lift a quite heavy bucket of water. The End

Wrong! If you look carefully, there are book marks in all the weighty tomes which are supposedly lifted from shelves by the archivist for the first time and it would be impossible to give this level of detail without several hours of research beforehand.

Sadly, the curse of WDYTYA? has encouraged visitors to libraries and archives to expect this magical service. They present themselves, tell us their last names and wait for us to produce the book of their family and move them to tears. It doesn't really work like that. Sorry.

When starting your family tree, always do as much research as you can within your own family before trying a records centre. Ask your parents and grandparents (if they are still around) as many questions as you can. Don't just ask for the names of your grandparents' parents; ask about their brothers and sisters too as this will make it easier to find them on a census. Middle names are also useful, as are any professions that you know of.

Take your research with you to the archive. We have several visitors every year who describe the reams of research and acres of carefully compiled scrapbooks that they left at home in loving detail. We need to see them.

Lastly, research takes a lot of time. Some of our visitors have been doing their family history for 10 years! Sometimes people are lucky and their relatives had an unusual name, were landowners or didn't move around very much and so can be traced easily from census to census. everyone else has to work at it. (It is fun though, you feel like a detective.)

Two particular episodes made every one here swoon with rage. First, was the Matthew Pincent episode where he was traced back to God. Don't get me started on that.

The second, was David Mitchell's episode. The morning after it aired, three of us all burst into the search room at 9am and shouted at each other "that lady was keeping Church Records in her HOUSE!"


  1. Hear, hear - as a professional genealogist, WDYTYA has racked up clients' expectations, which is not a bad thing, however some are a tad "unrealistic".... loving your blog BTW! Jo

  2. Hilarious! - and so true. Expectations are high from some of our overseas visitors. It is sometimes a genuine suprise that their ancestors were just not documented back to (King)David 1st.


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