Saturday, March 3, 2012

Genealogists live in interesting times

For a hobby devoted to deceased ancestors, things have been very lively in the genealogy world lately. Television, the Internet, and in-person conferences are breathing life into family history.

“Who Do You Think You Are?” the program where genealogists trace the ancestry of celebrities began Season 3 Friday. The opening episode starred Martin Sheen, actor and activist, who found that his activism has deep roots in both his Irish and Spanish forebears. Naturally, celebrity genealogy requires trips overseas and private sessions with archivists! Nevertheless, it was fun to vicariously visit the old countries with Sheen.

The series began as the dream child of “Friends” cuckoo Lisa Kudrow who turns out to be savvy enough in real life to produce a popular show on a topic that has sometimes been seen as a dry and dreary list of names. The series, based on a similar series in the United Kingdom, has featured celebrities in the entertainment and sports worlds and so it has interested those who might not have been drawn to genealogy for its own sake.

The genealogy work performed can seem too good to be true and too easy at times. And it is. A one-hour segment, complete with trip to Europe, naturally has compressed much behind the scenes. Digging in the archives, the dry, dusty papers, the libraries, the ancient book look glamorous. Even the Internet work depicted on the show has been edited for dramatic interest and commercial breaks. Real genealogists know that it takes longer, that there are more brick walls and wrong turns than can possibly be presented on TV.

But, we love the series anyway. We hope it will bring interest – which we’ve been unable to awaken by ourselves – to members of our family. It’s an old story among genealogists that we cannot get our families – our living relatives, that is, to become interested in our second-great-great-aunt from Bugtussle. But show an episode, as was done in the first season of Emmitt Smith and his search for roots in slavery, and the living room becomes quiet as mild-mannered genealogists open up a dramatic personal history.

The next big thing to open up for ancestor-seekers is the 1940 Federal Census. Closed to the public by law for 72 years, the 1940 Census will be released April 2. Such releases are an every-ten-years excitement for genealogists who use the records to discover family relationships and vital information about their forebears. This World War II-era census is particularly exciting because of new questions and because of increased longevity which leads heritage-seekers to reliably assume that there may be many people still living who might find themselves on the enumerations.

I will be leading “1940 Is Here!” workshops in Tyler and Canton, Texas, to explain the ins and outs and what to expect as the records are released in raw form. No index will be available at first for the more than 130 million records, but this will be the first decade of record to be opened on digitally on the Internet rather than by now-old-fashioned microfilm.

Finally, RootsTech 2012 just wrapped up last week in Salt Lake City. This convention of old-time genealogists and the most up-to-the minute geeky gadget purveyors has generated lots of interest. Faster search engines (be still my heart!), portable scanners, and new data collections are only a sampling of the kinds of topics covered. RootsTech was part of a several days-long stretch of independent conferences and institutes, including those held by the Association for Professional Genealogists and the Utah Genealogical Association’s Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. This has created a great energy and synchronicity, and Twitter and Facebook posts have been full of excitement. The next big conference, after RootsTech/APG/SLIG will be GRIP. Acronyms are popular among genealogists, and GRIP is the newest. It stands for Genealogy Research Institute of Pittsburgh and has attracted some of the field’s top speakers and instructors. Cruises, genealogy research trips and local societies are growing, as well.

Whether by TV, “Google machine,” or in person, heredity-hounds have new options that are animating one of America’s top hobbies.

1 comment:

  1. Oddly, I've yet to watch an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" (part of the reason is that my husband and I don't have cable!) but I look forward to catching up on that... and VERY much look forward to the 1940 census (I'm hoping to learn more about my maternal great-grandmother). Great blog; I love the writing, and the design!