There Is One Thing Wrong With “Who Do You Think You Are?”

family tree, who do you think you areI really enjoy the program “Who Do You Think You Are?”  I have even gotten my non-genealogy enthusiast husband to watch it with me each week. I know there is some controversy about the program only highlighting “famous” persons and how these people can handle all these wonderful old documents, with white gloves on of course. They fly to the places their Ancestors came from and visit the places they lived and where they were buried. All in all it is a good show. The bonus is it is bringing more of the younger generations into the Genealogy fold.

So why am I writing this blog? Because, no matter how good the program is, there are some drawbacks to it. Let me explain. My husband comes from a very large family. They are spread out across the country from Alaska, to New York to Florida and even down into Mexico. I have been working on his family’s genealogy for over 5 years. I put together a private family page on Facebook and have posted my findings. I even put together a beautiful book for my in-laws which included photos, documents and stories.  Several of my husband’s siblings have asked for copies and the word that I am a Genealogist has gotten out.

One of my husband’s cousins, who I only met once at her Grandmother’s funeral, recently contacted me. She had heard about the Facebook page and asked if I could let her have accessEurope to it. Then she asked if I could maybe find some information about her father’s side of the family. After a couple of days she asked me if I could also find anything on her maternal Grandfathers side. She gave me what little information she had about them so I faced the challenge and felt pretty good about what I discovered. Then a week later she asked if I could also research her husband’s family. Again she only had limited information about them. I was amazed at how diverse their families were. Her father’s Ancestors came over from Ireland in 1865. Her maternal Grandfathers side came from Mexico, Poland and Germany! Her husband’s family emigrated here in 1967 from Italy.

So where is the problem? After giving me the sparse information that she had about both her family and her husband’s family, she contacts me 3 days later and is upset that I hadn’t found more data. I had traced her husband’s family back to the mid 1800’s in Italy; her father’s Ancestors back to 1834 in Ireland and her mother’s paternal side back to 1845 Germany. I told her it could take years to find and document these lines; it can’t be done in a week. Her response? “Well, on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ they can find it faster than that.”

watchingTV1After I quit laughing, dried the tears from my eyes and counted to 10, I let her in on a little secret. It is a television program! We have no idea how long it actually took to find the information they have. They also have a large staff and researchers working on the tree. We also don’t know if they screen the “famous” people to make sure their Ancestors are the easier ones to find. I also told her, that as much as I would love to, I really couldn’t afford to fly to Ireland, Germany, Poland or Mexico to do research.  I explained that I could throw a tree together for her if she really didn’t care about having proof that these people belonged to her. Thankfully, she understood what I was saying and told me to take my time and do it right.

So, from where I am sitting I can see some of the problems this wonderful television show can cause for us. We already live in an instant gratification world. Everything should be quick, easy and available on the internet. By showing how a person can find not only their Ancestors, but documentation, stories and photos in a one hour program, people are lead to believe that this is how it is. Maybe there should be a “disclaimer” included in either the opening or closing of the program that explains that in real life it takes longer than one hour to create your family tree. In the meantime, I will just hope that future clients will be open to the fact that genealogy does take time and is a lot of work.

I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, crafter, reader, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter.





54 thoughts on “There Is One Thing Wrong With “Who Do You Think You Are?”

  1. If it was such an easy task, why don’t more people do it? Hmmm…
    So I was contacted by a person in another state, a friend of a friend, about working on a family tree for her father-in-law’s birthday in less than 3 weeks. My fee: simply make a donation to my non-profit feral cat spay/neuter fund.
    She wanted a family crest, and seemed undaunted when I told her there was most likely NOT a crest.
    I created a tree, spent a lot of hours on research, presented her with my findings in a timely fashion. End of story. No more contact. No donation.

    1. Wow! I am speechless. I agree, if it was that simple why not do it themselves. It is especially hard when they are family because I don’t want to make waves if I don’t have too!

      Thanks for reading the blog.


  2. Valerie, being in Europe I can’t watch this TV show. But as I genealogist I KNOW that it can’t be done in 45 minutes. Only last week a friend of a friend mentioned a scandal in the family. I made suggestions to where she could find more information. She was like, “Wow this is a wonderful hobby. I can do this!” A day later she wasn’t getting anywhere and it was, “I don’t think this is a hobby for me!”

    For me it’s a passion and when I can help I will. But I know that she was only the latest in a long list of people who have quit before starting because it is too hard, not enough time, not exciting enough, or someone else has already done it (don’t even ask if this is confirmed and cited).

    Thanks for an interesting read!

    1. Thank you for reading my blog. I knew that I couldn’t be the only one who encountered someone who thought it should be easy to do Genealogy. Thanks for sharing that story, all I can do is shake my head!


  3. I agree with everything you’re saying but I don’t blame the TV show, that’s just people being a little stupid 🙂 …not the fault of any TV show.

  4. I have to agree with Chris – it’s not ALL the fault of the TV show. People should realize that real life and TV rarely have much in common. Even the so-called “reality” TV shows.

    My family – the non-genealogy obsessed part – also watch the show. At first it was just to humor me but now they enjoy it. My sister tells me all the time, “I don’t know why you act like genealogy is so HARD. Just walk into the library and they will have it all ready for you.” She KNOWS that’s a joke. We have variations on this but it generally revolves around how easy genealogy is. But again – they KNOW they are joking. 🙂

  5. I am a family history librarian and am amazed on the occasions when customers come in thinking that we have their genealogies in a filing cabinet somewhere lol!
    Or the customers who you are trying to help, who get impatient after half an hour and go telling people that either you (or your research library) is useless, because they were there for half an hour and we didn’t find very much!

    However, most customers realise and are appreciative of the time you put into it, and the knowledge and skill that comes with it – even if you do initially have to educate them.

    Ancestry’s advert doesn’t help with the perception “I just put in my name and generations opened up for me”! Lol

    If it were that easy it wouldn’t be fun, now would it?

  6. I enjoyed reading this! I was coming across this in my DAR group. Interested members sometimes could not understand that all the proof is a lot of work! I too think that searching for the answers is the fun part. Maybe WDYTYA should say “our star is meeting with so and so genealogist who has been searching for 2 months for information on this tree”.I also laugh when they get all this cool information on the first name they search in Ancestry 🙂

    1. Amanda,

      I so totally agree. I sometimes wish it were that easy when I search again for my Great Grandfather and after 20 years still nothing!

      Thanks for commenting and reading the blog. I appreciate it.


  7. Thanks for the blog. I’ve lost my great-greats in the late 1800s…shouldn’t take more than a decade or two more to find them, if ever. I agree the show makes genealogy look simple, when much of the time it’s plain hard work and persistence. My other pet peeve for this show is that the stars always say they are doing it for Mom or Dad, but then they never take Mom or Dad on this fabulous journey into their past. I think it would add another dimension to show two generations reactions to the records!

    1. Jo,

      I totally agree. What a great idea to include the parents in the journey. It’s not like they don’t have enough money to take them along! Maybe you should make that suggestion to them.

      Thanks so much for your comments and for reading the blog!


  8. If it was that easy, someone in their family would have already done it. What simpleton really believes the whole thing is not staged????

  9. I wish that WDYTYA would do this for some ordinary people sometimes! Especially someone who can’t afford to go flying off to all the different places for research!

    1. Nancy,

      I know I have a few elusive Ancestors that I would love this kind of help with! I think everyone does. They could have every third show about an ordinary person. I guess I am just dreaming as we know that would never happen..LOL.

      Thanks for the comment and for reading the blog.


      1. Valerie, excellent post! I totally agree that it would be lovely if WDYTYA did three things:

        1) hint at how much pre-screening is involved;
        2) provide an estimate of how much actual research time the hunt takes; and
        3) throw us average folks a bone once or twice a season.

        Thanks for reading…

      2. Yolanda,

        I am behind this 100%! Like I said it just makes it harder to convince a non-genealogy person how long it can take to find correct information.

        Thank you for your comment and for reading the blog. Have a great weekend.


  10. Very nice article. Genealogy does take a lot of time and I too wish I could fly to every location where my ancestors were to do research. You are definitely correct about WDYTYA screening the guests. I can tell by the ones that they do research for that they, for example, may not even mention much of the paternal line (or maternal line). Professional genealogists have a network of people they tap and pay to do research for them, this dramatically decreases the research time.

  11. Excellent ‘tongue n cheek’ blog and so true! We’ve several sainted Primas that have spent years on our huge Sanchez/Sandoval ancestral line in New Mexico…and we’re still hearing rumors! Source records, I so agree with you~ I, too like the exposure to the younger generation, let’s just have a reality check or disclaimer on show would be awesome. A “commoner” with parent, yay! Probably not realistic;). One can hope~. God Bless your work Valerie~

  12. I love searching my family’s lines. It took me 2 years to physically prove that I had great grandfathers who fought in the Revolutionary War.

  13. I agree. As much as I love WDYTYA and now Genealogy Roadshow, they both make the stranger-to-genealogy make it seem insantaneous! And as for Ancestry’s “I entered my name and generations opened to me”, harumph! No generation has opened for me! Apparently, no one’s researching any of the people I’m doing! I have as yet to find anything on anyone’s tree EXCEPT cousins I already know who are doing the same line I am! 🙂

  14. I haven’t watched WDYTYA in quite a while, but I love the show. However, I have seen the “professional” genealogists on the show make some really amateur leaps in connections. Sometimes I think they really do throw it all together in a half hour! 😉

  15. Great post. These shows make it look so easy and non-genealogists who have no understanding of genealogy research are ducked in. I think WDYTYA should be upfront and let viewers know how much effort/money/hours go into each episode.

  16. Thank you for your comments. This is one of the shortfalls of WDYTYA.

    Does your “Planning your Genealogy trip” book deal with only the USA, or other parts of the world? Will I be able to read it on my laptop?

  17. The Australian version contacted me, seems I’m distantly related to a famous comedian here. That was about 2 years before the show aired. They find you via your Ancestry account and ask if it’s ok to use any info you have and if you have any photos or more info that you might share. You then get a free DVD of the episode after it airs….and they keep it a secret until the week before so you have no idea who it’s going to be!

  18. i very much enjoyed reading this blog. My husband and i did a 3 week road trip looking for documents that were not on the internet, and found a live relatives did not know had existed. They had pieces of a puzzle in a suitcase of all things lol. It was an expensive trip though, i had a marker made for one of my great Aunts whom i have never met. I could not stand too see a unmarked grave it broke my heart Thats the third one that we did that for lol.
    we do have a goal for Northern Ireland we were hoping Sept 2018. We have been putting money aside for that. It’s the only way. What we have done in the past though is pay for flight and accommodations ahead of time. This way you can start paying it off and you will have money to spend for your trip.

    1. What a wonderful thing to do! People don’t understand that less than 25% of documents are online! I have made a few Genealogy Research trips but one like this! My dream is to go to Ireland for research and pleasure. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Yes totally agree that this is just a TV program and all the “helpful” historians and Archivists who just happen appear is a set-up. All the info can be found on line or on various data bases on cds etc. Now as for the researchers, this correct as I know from personal experience. Until a few months ago I was the Archivist for the Western Australia Police Historical Society and have attended to a number of requests for information from the producers of this show. Agreed, it can be very informative and alerts people to genealogy, but it’s really a travel doco.

  20. On tv every criminal trial is done a week after the crime, even for murder. They would be over even faster but those darn police need 36 hours to solve the case and the lawyers need 12 hours to prepare, even though the judge is standing by in an empty courtroom eager to begin. The same is true in doctor shows where the cure would be a lot faster than the usual two days except the bacteria in the Petri dish down in the lab just cannot be trained to grow faster. MRIs, x-rays, CT scans, blood transfusions, biopsies, and life-saving transplants, no problem. Now why should genealogy take so long? 😉

  21. I do have a lot of ancestors in places (Sint-anthoniepolder, ‘s-Gravendeel, Hendrik-Ido-Ambacht) where birth & marriage records of the 18th century were desyroyed, so then you just can’ t find anything. I’m impressed you even found ancestors in other European countries, for the place of origin, when far away, is often vaguely discribed and wrongly spelled.

    1. That was the point..hard to find records and with a common name for that country it would take a lot of time to match them to her ancestors. She just thought that it shouldn’t take more than 2 weeks to find it all!

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