Wednesday, 21 November 2007

The Trouble With WDYTYA

While in England I watched four taped episodes of WDYTYA, and had two in the Canadian series waiting on my return. I was reminded of smoked salmon.

I love smoked salmon. It's a delight when the sandwiches turn up on the deli platter, rather than pervasive mystery meat. I usually buy a package when it goes on special. If the sale lasts long enough I buy a second lot, but at the end of that will tire of it.

There's an element missing with WDYTYA, and I think I know what it is. Learning the origins of people is interesting. The story moves from a relative, who has documents at hand and is ready with the key information, to an archives where the original source documents are set out, to an ancestral location where a locally knowledgeable historian or distant relative appears to reveal more of the story.

What isn't being captured is the excitement of the chase. When every stop yields further progress you lose the thrill that follows the frustration of a long search rewarded at an unexpected point. We've all experienced the moment at an archives or family history centre -- inhibitions drop and you let out a cry of delight, causing those around to smile as they recognize the emotion. It's the powerful motivation provided by random reward. Just like smoked salmon, the satisfaction grows dull when the reward is too predictable. Maybe hours of fruitless searching don't make for good television, but it's an element of the genealogical hunt that doesn't come through in WDYTYA and that keeps genealogists motivated, year after year, battering at their brick walls.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a similar point but I find the whole process very artificial. The impression the viewer is supposed to have is that the celebrities are doing the research themselves. This is so far from the truth. There was a merry band of paid help there long before the celebrity arrived not only to find the relevant material but also to stage the “oh, look at this” moment. To have one believe that archivists and other curators would go out of their way to do the research for someone and then take them to the stacks in their white gloves to show them what they have found is beyond belief but it does make for interesting television.