Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Rosie O'Donnell

Friday's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? followed Rosie O'Donnell as she researched her mother's side of the family.  Her mother died when Rosie was 10, and she mentioned that her family never talked about the past, so she knew almost nothing going into the research.

This episode had a lot of things I really liked that I have not seen in previous episodes.  Rosie said at the beginning that she wanted her research to make her ancestors fully fleshed-out individuals.  Someone in the family is the keeper of the family photos and that kind of stuff.  (He isn't a celebrity, though, so Rosie is the one who got to do the show.)  Rosie said to her brother as they were looking through the photos, "It's not gonna be as easy as it looks on TV."  (It still was that easy for her, of course, because the professional researchers did the work for her, but at least she acknowledged the work isn't easy.)  She pursued research on a collateral line of the family (something not enough people do).  She scrolled through microfilm multiple times.  You could almost think the producers were listening to comments from genealogists, but I know that's impossible, because this episode had to have been in the can for a while before it was broadcast.

I really appreciated the fact that Rosie wanted to identify the photograph that had hung on the wall of the home for so many years.  As the keeper of the photos and ephemera in my family, I have far too many photos that are still unidentified.  And I don't know if anyone is left who would recognize the people in the photos.   It was heartening to see that the cousins recognized the photo and could confirm it was indeed Anna.

And I was happy near the beginning of the episode, when Rosie was presented with a printout of the 1861 Canadian census page showing her family, that was mentioned but not shown on screen.  They made up for it later, when the archivist at the Québec National Archives searched the Drouin records on, but at least they showed only the search form, not the Ancestry header.  Yeah, I know, they're the principal sponsor.  As I've said before -- product placement.

But ... there was still a lot that was pretty unrealistic.  Rosie did almost all of her research by going in person to the repositories, something that is impossible for most people because of the expense, and unnecessary in a lot of instances because you can look up some of the information online.  An index to New York City deaths from 1862-1948 is available on the Italian Genealogical Group Web site; an improved search form for the database is available on Steve Morse's One-Step Webpages.  The 1900 U.S. Census, which Rosie looked at on microfilm, is available on,, and HeritageQuest (available through many libraries) at a minimum.  Most of the research was done by the professionals and waiting for Rosie when she arrived at each location.

There were also a couple of big logic problems that leaped out at me.  When Rosie and the Irish genealogist were at the church looking through the parish records, they found a fourth child who had been born in Ireland.  Rosie hypothesized that Patrick had died before the family had emigrated to Canada -- not an unreasonable idea.  Then, when she found her family in the Poor Law Union minutes at the Kildare Library, she and the librarian both read that the family had come with four children.  While I understand the focus of the segment was on the poor conditions in the workhouses, you would think there would have been at least a passing mention of the fact that Patrick had apparently been with the family when they arrived at the workhouse and the possibility (probability?) that he died there.  Wouldn't you?  Maybe something was said and it was edited out?  It just comes off as a continuity error to me.

The other place I had a major disconnect was when Rosie was looking in the newspaper in the Grand Bibliothèque for an obituary for her great-great-grandmother.  At one point she said it was "all I have to go on."  What about her great-great-grandfather?  He was born in Ireland also.  If the researchers hadn't been able to find anything in his records that said where in Ireland he was from, at least say that.  Otherwise it makes no sense why finding where her great-great-grandmother was from was her last chance.  (As an aside, Rosie was incredibly calm when she found that obituary.  All she did was say, "We have a winner!"  I would have been doing the genealogy happy dance around the film reader.)

Even when she did find the obituary, all it said was that her great-great-grandmother was from Kildare, as in County Kildare.  As anyone who has done Irish research knows, that won't get you anywhere.  You need to know the townland and the parish.  So it speaks well of the researchers the program uses that they were able to find the parish where the records were in Ireland.

I found it more than a little disconcerting that the comparison they chose to draw for the workhouse was a concentration camp.  While I am not an expert in 19th-century Irish history, I feel that does a disservice to the administrators and officials in charge of the system.  I have never heard or read that they had genocide in mind.  They might not have had deep sympathy for the people who went through the system, but they weren't trying to deliberately kill them.  It was an exaggerated and inappropriate metaphor.  A closer analog would be a homeless shelter, but that wouldn't sound as dramatic, would it?


  1. I had the same reaction to the "logic problems" of the show, although overall I really enjoyed it. In particular, I would have been wondering - "If Patrick was still alive when they got to the workhouse, did he die here, on the way to Canada with the family, or after they arrived there?"

  2. Exactly my thoughts! Even if the researchers had not been able to determine where and when he died, after talking about him and hypothesizing about his death earlier, it made no sense not to even mention that the fourth child who went to the workhouse with the family was probably Patrick.

  3. I had most of the same thoughts you did, Janice, and I also found myself wishing they would explain how they tracked down the correct family of cousins (named Smith). I was also almost shouting at the TV when they looked in the old book and found the baptism record for her great-great grandmother in Ireland, "Keep looking...maybe you will find baptism or marriage records for the next generation back." I suppose the experts had already looked and found nothing. But if so, they should have explained that. In spite of its faults, I thought this episode was very satisfying and demonstrated why we genealogists do what we do.

  4. One more thought: It seems to me that, harsh as it was, forcing homeless people to live in a workhouse was kinder than what we do--which is basically to make them sleep on the street.

  5. Beth, as far as filling in the explanations of all the research, I've given up on them describing that, because it really would take up too much time for the air time they have, and I understand that. That's a practicality of the medium they are using. On the other hand, that would seem to be excellent content that could be made available online. Not everyone would want to read research reports from the professional genealogists, but some of us sure would.

    As for the workhouse, I agree with you, which is why I think the comparison to a concentration camp was totally out of line. I suspect that the authorities were generally doing the best they could at the time under difficult circumstances.

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  7. I looked at, just to see what they've got. I thought I'd see what someone who is just starting out in their search can accomplish. It's where a lot of people who watch "Who Do You Think You Are" will start - and where they can either get off to a good start or really screw themselves up.

    My main thought right now is "don't just use's 'leaf hints' - look at the original record whenever you can." For example, the hints for my great-uncle Herbert A. Lathrop include the 1930 US Census. I can either look at the original record, or I can "review the hint" which is just a summary of some of the information found in the original record. The "hint" only lists Uncle Bert, Aunt Fern, and their 4 sons. The hint summary does not list the two other members of the household, Fern's parents. If I hadn't looked at the original record, I would have possibly lost that lead. Not to mention all the other information that isn't in the summary: occupation, marital status, etc.

    Those who use can get very lazy and just rely on the "hints." Yes, they're good starting points - but people need to know that there's more information available that they *can* get to - if they know what to look for, and where to look for it. That's why I'm so excited about your blog. You help point to those places/people/artifacts/records/items that people can search for but that they may not know about.

  8. Thank you for the compliments, Carol! It is gratifying to know that you are excited about what you're learning from my blog.

    The problem you mentioned about relying on the "leaf hints" is very common, and the habit is not restricted to users of (though Ancestry is one of the few companies to promote the habit). People who find index entries, summaries, extracts, and transcriptions on other sites and in books often forget that they need to look for the original records. Not only could the record contain additional information, there could be an error in the transcription, and the record might not have anything to do with your family after all. Always try to get a copy of the original if possible.

  9. I think a better metaphor would have been a debtor's prison or even just "prison." The people in a workhouse were made to work, and treated as less than human, by all accounts. The two year olds being pulled away and put apart from their parents is not like a homeless shelter - well okay maybe sometimes. But people in homeless shelters typically are not worked ragged and barely fed.

  10. Thanks for your comments. From what I have read of that period, prison was significantly worse than the conditions in the workhouse. And yes, there are shelters that separate parents and children. As for making the residents work and how much they were fed, keep in mind that Ireland in that time period was a desperately poor country; there weren't many resources available for anyone.


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