Does the media help or hinder our work?

3 October 2013

When I first started researching my own family history …. good heavens, did I once only look into my own family’s past! …. t’interweb was in its infancy and finding ancestors in censuses was a long and often laborious task. Trawling through microfilm, page after page, in the vain hope that the family did not move from decade to decade, frequently resulted in more negative results in a day, than positive.

Trying to remember the days before Ancestry and FindMyPast makes me feel surprisingly old. And yes, I do remember the days before we all had computers and mobile telephones which also gave us access to emails and the ability to go online. And then came, Who Do You Think You Are and Heir Hunters on television – who’d have thought it? Family history research…. on the goggle box!

But, do these wonders of televisual experience assist us in our work? They have certainly provided a lot of publicity and possibly enhanced the number of people who are tracing their roots. However, how many individuals have you heard, walking into a record office and, in a manner of speaking, expecting the archivist to produce their tree, just like they do on the television series!? It might work for Jeremy Clarkson, John Simpson or Gary Lineker…. that’s because (a) they are celebrities and (b) there is an entire team behind the programme spending months on the research!

BBC’s Heir Hunters helps in some ways as when you try to explain to potential beneficiaries why you are calling, many of them have seen the programme, so they know what you are talking about. However, the hindrance is that the cases which are featured on the television show are generally a significant sum of money and so, everyone thinks that they are going to inherit a sizeable sum, even if we tell them that this is highly unlikely.

So, I guess we’ll just have to accept that these programmes were designed to attract viewers and whilst both shows are factually correct, their priority is to entertain the public….

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