An active pursuit

belfast map proniWhile the variety of televised programs about family history have certainly increased interest in the hobby, I fear that it has begun to supply a skewed approach to genealogical research. So many of these shows show others doing the research for the person, and then making the big reveal, that more often than not we find visitors to the NEHGS Research Center here in Boston expecting us to do the actual research for them.

Don’t get me wrong – I love to assist family historians with their research. We all need a little guidance from time to time as we struggle with a particular line on the family tree. And I understand that for many people this is a new hobby and they may not understand what to do. Again, I am happy to assist in getting those individuals started. I still remember when I first got involved in family history – back in the pre-computer dark ages of handwritten charts and forms and drafting countless letters to repositories, town halls, and county clerks.

I also remember being one of those “odd” individuals who was interested in family history. We would huddle together at the annual conferences, drawing strength from the fact that we weren’t as alone as we originally thought. There were people interested in how we discovered a record or located that private cemetery, as opposed to our own family who tried, not too successfully, to stifle yawns as we shared such information. There were certainly others eager to hear how best to research in the National Archives and what was on microfilm at the Family History Library.

I love the challenge when someone says “You can’t find my tree.”

It is this involvement and the hunt that are the fun for most family historians. I have often said at lectures that the day I need only click a single button and be shown an entire family tree I will need to find a new hobby. I love the challenge when someone says “You can’t find my tree.” I like the mental exercise required in figuring out what records or resources will break through a brick wall.

When you visit a repository, please do a little homework ahead of time. Almost every repository now has some information online about its holdings. If there is an online catalog, search it for localities and families you are researching. We have individuals who make a trip to Boston only to be disappointed because we don’t have the book or record they expected us to have. I feel so bad for them and dislike it that I have contributed to their disappointment.

If you are struggling with a language, we are happy to help. If you have never researched in French-Canadian records or don’t know what types of records might exist in Germany or Italy for your families, we are happy to assist you. But remember that family history – like golf, stamp collecting, or fishing – requires your involvement, too. It is not a passive hobby where you simply sit and watch others do it. After all, where is the fun in that?

About Rhonda McClure

Rhonda R. McClure, Senior Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer. Before joining American Ancestors/NEHGS in 2006, she ran her own genealogical business for 18 years. She was a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine, Biography magazine and was a contributor to The History Channel Magazine and American History Magazine. In addition to numerous articles, she is the author of twelve books including the award-winning The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Genealogy, Finding your Famous and Infamous Ancestors and Digitizing Your Family History. She is the editor of the 6th edition of the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, available in our bookstore. When she isn’t researching and writing about family history, she spends her time writing about ice hockey, covering collegiate to NHL teams and a couple of international teams. Her work has allowed her the privilege of attending and covering the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

30 thoughts on “An active pursuit

  1. The TV shows have definitely misled people as to the process–and yes the difficulty–of genealogy. Yet the hunt is part of the excitement of it all–if you enjoy it. The other problem with those shows is that, when info is shared with family, they have no idea of the blood, toil, tears and sweat (and creative thinking and money) that have gone into uncovering those discoveries. After all, it only took 45 minutes plus commercials!

  2. I could not agree more!! I too love the thrill of the search. And I’ve been doing it a LONG time, almost 40 years. My husband on the other hand could not care less! But he sits and watches WDYTYA with me, and I constantly point out how unrealistic it is for someone to walk into a repository and have someone hand them a family tree! And I grumble about those commercials touting how easy it is to complete your tree by just clicking “here”. In my humble opinion, raising your family tree is no different than raising your flesh and blood family…if it’s too easy, you’re not doing it right!

  3. Unfortunately, the people who need to know this are not the ones likely to read this blog post, even though it’s correct in every aspect. There is joy (along with agony, frustration, boredom, expense, and a few other negatives) in this journey. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than actually breaking down a brick wall. It’s why we do what we do, or at least why we keep doing what we do.

  4. Hi Rhonda,

    One resource that I have found very helpful in locating research material is the search engine at You can search for what you are looking for by many keys: Author, Title, Subject, Format, etc., view full bibliographic info about the item, and best of all, see a listing of libraries that have a copy of the item.

    Do you know if the materials at the NEHGS Research Center are catalogued on WorldCat? I know that I have found material listed in a wide variety of locations, not just public lending libraries. That might be a great way to figure out if there is a single repository that has the materials which you are seeking, or if the repository that you are planning to visit (i..e NEHGSRC) actually has the material that you are seeking.

    My local Public Library’s Interlibrary Loan Service requires that you search all the branches in their Countywide system first, which are in a single catalogue covering several physical locations. If one of the branches has a copy, it is easy to get it sent to your closest branch for pickup at your convenience. If none of the branches have a copy, then you are transferred over to the search engine at to see who else may have a copy in their holdings, and then you can proceed with the request to borrow the material, once you locate a listing in WorldCat.

    1. Hi Steven,

      Yes, our catalog is part of WorldCat, but we do not participate in interlibrary loan since we are a private library. However, I agree with you that WorldCat is an excellent resource.

      1. That’s what I thought, regarding the NEHGS collections.

        If you find the item listed in WorldCat, your local library’s interlibrary loan department will usually reach out to the libraries that have the material, and you may get a variety of responses, from a library that is willing to mail the book to your library system free of charge, to an offer to make a limited number of copies from the book (as long as you can provide info on exactly what you need, i.e. page numbers, chapters, index listings). Some libraries will not loan material unless you pay them a small fee to cover the mailing costs, and of course, some private libraries or archives do not loan their materials at all. If there are multiple repositories that have copies of the book, your local library’s ILL Dept. is your best resource for finding out which ones (if any) will provide what you need, at the least cost to you.

  5. Amen! I get almost as much fun helping someone else break through a brick wall as I do chipping away at my own. I always tell new researchers to do their own work and only look at a posted or published family trees as a last resort – and as a source for clues. I have to admit, I’d like to be a researcher for one of the TV genealogy shows, and to learn more about the process of making the shows – selecting the subject, etc. I understand that people may have an interest in learning their family history without having the same interest, ability, or time to do the research. Hopefully, whichever family member, friend, or professional they engage to do the actual research will have a good work ethic and attention to detail.

  6. I will throw in another “Amen! Well said, Rhonda.” It reminds of being part of a group that does free start-up business counseling. Many wanted me to write their business plan.

  7. I understand what you’re saying – and some folks will have unrealistic expectations about how everything they want to know will appear at the click of some computer keys – but sometimes that does happen. Though I love the genealogy and the history and searching for myself, many folks don’t have the time or inclination to do it themselves – so they should hire someone to do the research for them.
    Now I have a brick wall that I would love to break and it involves a possible link to a famous author and, short of a trip to Scotland, I am stuck. This is frustrating and I have no idea what it will cost to get the answers I need and I’m not prepared to make the trip there myself. So wouldn’t I love it if I was on Genealogy Roadshow and someone found the answer for me? Absolutely! Because think I’ve done all I can from the U.S. and someone else may know just how to find the answer. But if the professionals couldn’t find the answer, I would have the satisfaction that I’d done all I could to find it. Writing this really indicates to me that hiring a Scottish researcher may be necessary for me at some point soon.

    1. Janice, I may be able to advise you on your Scottish problem pro bono. Feel free to contact me via the Association of Professional Genealogist web page.

      1. Hi again, tried clicking on your name to get to website and did get to a website – but saw no mechanism to contact you. I did google Association of Professional Genealogist website but not sure if I found the right one. Perhaps there are a number of associations based in different places with similar names? Anyway, please provide means to contact you. Thanks!

  8. Add my voice to the comments about the TV shows with their instant trees, and research that could not possibly be done in less than an hour. They could at least explain how all the research gets done before it is presented. Even the host’s parting comment, “thank you for stopping by…” just perpetuates the myth.

    1. Or the show could mention how many hours and people it took to retrieve all of the information they are receiving.

  9. My problem with genealogy shows, while I like watching most of them, is that they don’t show the process, the work, the time. Instant gratification sells, and as we all know, genealogical research is anything but instant.

    1. That is the criticism I have of these shows. They give the public an unreal idea of the time and perseverence needed to locate the information. I always tell beginners that there are Three P’s to genealogy research. Patience, Perseverance, and Persistence

  10. Here’s another amen! Genealogy is fun, brings history to life, takes a lot of effort and supplies us with the challenge of the hunt. But some people simply do not like digging through haystacks for needles. The purpose of these programs is to encourage the pursuit of ones family tree and family history. Therefore the shows not only have to be interesting but they must minimize the difficulty of finding and VERIFYING much of the information as it might discourage some people. I have long taken issue with some of the advertising for these programs that make it all look so simple however to make genealogy research seem anything but simple would be bad for business.

  11. All informative and accurate comments above, from my viewpoint. Given the exposure by all of these T.V. programs to our field, perhaps we shouldn’t find fault with them. On the other hand, it wouldn’t detract from their entertainment value if they would place an advisory at the beginning or ending of their shows that the kind of results seen on T.V. are the result of “X” number of hours by experienced professional leaders in their field, not to be expected by wandering unprepared into archives or libraries. We know the pleasures of the hunt, but perhaps these T.V. programs should feel an obligation not to set most people up for disappointment. I’d like to add to the listing of wonderful on-line finding aids above “The On-line Archive of California”. Some 175 + California archives and historical societies have posted detailed inventories of their records for easy location leading to productive research. Many are not aware of the world-wide relevance of these collections.

    1. Actually the roadshow and others could perhaps produce a very interesting program about research. But I guess I love the research part.

      1. Yes, if the current shows are the “101-level prerequisite courses,” a new show could delve into HOW the research is done and offer tips to those who enjoy the thrill of the chase.

  12. I do not like the idea they portray. The don’t see the hours and hours of research tediously looking at microfilm frame by frame. I have been doing genealogy for over 50 years now and I love that the internet gives us so many records to view. Problem is when it is to easy people latch on to it and don’t prove things. I still love the thrill of the chase and look at everything I can. I laugh when I see a historian on WDYTUA just magically produce a document without showing what they had to do to get to that point.

  13. I agree with Carole that a show that focuses on the research and instills a realistic appreciation for all of the work that goes into these family trees/histories would be helpful. But these types of false expectations that we set up with people are not only in this area of specialty – particularly as it applies to entertainment. As a chemist, I can tell you that most science you see on TV shows is pure fantasy. (DNA crime analysis and deconvolving/denoising a license plate from a super low res image are two of my favorites…) It does fuel a lot of misplaced public anger when an actual crime isn’t tied up in a neat bow in an hour.

  14. It is the same with the DYI shows that show a kitchen remodeled in half an hour or a garden dug up, planted and watered in half an hour. They are interesting shows that confirms to people that they can do it too but I hope that they realize the behind the scenes work and the number of people working on the project get the finished project done rather than one person working alone.

  15. Amen again! They make it look way too easy – for me the fun is in the hunt, as well as the learning that goes along with it. Also, it isn’t always necessary to travel across the world, a few emails sometimes will find wonderful information.

  16. This is a double edged sword as putting genealogy into the minds of the general public provides more money for digitizing records than I thought I would never see in this life time. So it has opened up more doors for the researching public like you and I. And we are very knowledgeable without even knowing that we are due to all the years of being on the hunt. I too wish they would just once allude to the path they took to find whatever tidbit they passed along; if for nothing else, so that I too can possibly learn of another resource.
    I got hooked in a Social Studies class when I was in the 10th grade some 40 years ago and have had two brick walls ever since then. I suspect DNA tests may have given me a nudge in the right direction. I’d dearly love to connect them to see if this family is perhaps part of the Jacobite immigration to America. If this line connects, then I have them back to Virginia in 1773…wishful thinking. But I too don’t have the money to hire professionals. I’d just like to know I am headed in the right direction without it taking years to determine that.

  17. Great post! As many have said, I always laugh when an obscure newspaper article from a small town paper suddenly appears in front of a tv show guest and makes all the pieces fall into place. My guess is multiple researchers put in days of work to find that 2 inch article. I enjoy watching the shows, but can readily see the downside of novices coming away from them thinking someone else does the work for them.

  18. If you don’t do the years of research you really don’t appreciate the reward of finding something wonderful. For over twenty years I tried to get my German great-grandparents marriage record, or any information on them. They lived in the former East Prussia. Supposedly the records were burned at the end of WWII when the Soviets moved to the Oder River. I was in Berlin and found the correct records keeping building. Speaking no German I was able to hand over the names and marriage date. One hour later a very dour lady waved me into her office, locking the door behind. She handed me the record which included two more generations in the family. I basically floated out the door with the record in hand. No one but a dedicated genealogist can appreciate that brick wall was cracked open.

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