“A lot of the questions I get about my job are about how we do the research for WDYTYA,” said Lisa Elzey at the 2015 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy. In her presentation, “Ancestry.com: How the Records Tell the Story,” she not only shared some of the details, she shared how we could apply the principles in our own research. Lisa explained the process which Ancestry employees lovingly call the “Who Do You Machine.”
Casting is not done by Ancestry, but by Shed Media and The Learning Channel. Some stars come through referrals. You may have noticed that sometimes when a star is featured, you’ll see a costar or a friend in a later episode. For example, Kelly Clarkston is the daughter-in-law of Reba McIntire.
Some celebrities know a lot about their ancestors and some know very little. Once stars are selected we start building their tree, Lisa said. They use all of the basic records that can frame a story. Notice on the machine diagram, below, that some stars fall out. Sometimes it is because of scheduling. Sometimes they’ll come back later. Sometimes the research doesn’t get past a certain point.
After we get a solid foundation of a tree, we start exploring it, Lisa said. We look for compelling stories, such as Christina Applegate’s story about her father. “Beautiful episode,” Lisa said. Once we’ve found what we think is a compelling story, we start crafting the story together. To fill 42 minutes we need about 17 documents.
Once the story is done, then we film, she said. This can be tricky if the star is in a current project.
When that is done, you get the awesome show, Who Do You Think You Are.
You can use the same model as the Who-Do-You Machine to tell your own story.
1. Do the research.
- Use primary source material whenever possible to authenticate your story. It’s like the difference between fresh peas and green pea soup.
- Use census records. They create an arc of an individual’s life. They give you potential story clues. Plus, they are easy to find and use.
- Use birth, marriage, and death records. They help establish relationships and give you even more potential story clues.
- Then take a deeper dive. Use records such as pension files, newspapers, city directories, grave stones, deeds, probate (Ancestry has a huge collection coming out quite soon), histories, [and many more that I didn’t write down quickly enough].
- Research complete families. It is like having trees versus poles. Everything that happened in that family affected your tree. I have found amazing stories about my ancestors by researching their entire families, Lisa said.
2. Gather and organize your information.
You will hurt your ability to find stories if you aren’t building a family tree. You also need to keep a research journal and keep a simple documents folder. Adopt a naming convention for images, such as: surname-first name-birth year-document year-document type. If you’ve inherited a messy stack of research, start over, realizing you’re not starting from scratch. Learn about and use the Genealogical Proof Standard. I recommend Tom Jones’s book, Mastering Genealogical Proof, she said.
Lisa uses the Ancestry Shoebox app. When she visits a relative, if she sees a photograph see doesn’t have, she takes a photograph. It’s easy to add notes and attach it to your tree.
The new Ancestry website has a new Sources column. It makes sources easy to see. Clicking a fact shows visually what sources are attached to that fact. It also has a new Notes tool panel. It’s helpful for abstracts, journaling, and many other functions.
As an aside at the beginning of her presentation, Lisa mentioned the What’s New or Updated collection list on Ancestry.com. At the top of the list was “U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007.” A nice thing about the page is that along the side it lists what collections are coming up soon. Keep going back, because Ancestry is constantly adding new records.
Tomorrow I’ll continue my article about Lisa’s presentation.