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New TV show inspires, but remember: It's TV

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 05:49 PM

This column is for all you who have been inspired to start a search for your ancestors after watching all or some of the first four episodes of "Who Do You Think You Are?"

If you've missed this series, which takes celebrities on an exploration of their roots, you can still catch it at 8 p.m. Fridays on NBC through April 23. The show, an adaptation of a popular BBC program, helps popular American television and film stars learn how their families shaped history - and vice versa.

Real-time research isn't as quick

Some genealogists have criticized the program for being too polished, not showing the digging that every researcher must do before hitting pay dirt. And yes, the celebrities do seem to find their forefathers without a lot of effort.

But I think most budding genealogists will realize this is television - many hours, days, weeks, perhaps months, went into finding the materials culled into the hourlong (minus commercial time) episodes.

Just in case, though, I'd like to remind the newbies of the basics for beginning research. "Who Do You Think You Are?" hints at these but doesn't emphasize them.

1. Work backward from yourself and your parents to earlier generations. Sit down with your living relatives and record their memories. Establish which events the family member witnessed firsthand and which are family lore.

2. Putting family lore into a family history is fine as long as someone identifies it as such. Use it to ferret out records that will prove or disprove what may be colorful figments of someone's imagination or an exaggeration to impress others.

3. The Internet is a great first place to look for records, but there's also a lot of junk out there. Web sites with actual records that have been digitized usually are reliable. Sites on which records have been transcribed (copied, supposedly word for word) or abstracted (the most important parts taken from an original) don't always offer accurate products; they're often are filled with human errors. Use them as steppingstones to locate original records.

4. Researchers usually must travel to various locations, such as archives, courthouses and special collection repositories (usually in large libraries), to find original records. The celebrities featured in the TV series had the money to travel wherever they needed to go to find original records and to walk in their ancestors' footsteps. But we common folks usually can do that only with frugal planning and saving.

Pros can really help

5. When a researcher is unable to find evidence of an ancestor after searching every imaginable source, it may be time to hire a professional, either to search records or review the work to date and suggest ways to proceed. The celebrities on the NBC program were guided and spoon-fed the materials on their ancestors. Most of us can't afford that but would be surprised at how inexpensive it is to occasionally hire someone for a quick heave over a dry spot. Check out the Board for Certifications of Genealogists ( www.bcgcertification.org) to find qualified researchers.

6. Always take the time to study the history of the time and place in which an ancestor lived. This may explain why he did or did not do particular things. Never take a 21st-century frame of mind on a genealogy journey.

7. When you copy a document, always label it with the source. For example, if it is a land record Xeroxed from a deed book at the local courthouse, write something like "Deed Book 3:15 (book and page number), Recorder of Deeds Office, Mecklenburg County Courthouse, Charlotte, N.C."

If you copy a page from a book in the library, write the title, author, publishing information (company, location and date) and page number on each copy. If the information is directly from an individual, record the person's address, telephone number, e-mail address and the date you received the correspondence or materials.

Trust me, in a few years you'll look back on materials and not be able to recall where you got them.

As you enjoy the remaining episodes of "Who Do You Think You Are?," view the series with a focus on how the researchers located and used various resources and how you can apply their discoveries to your quests.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa FL 33606 or e-mail them to stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable

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