5 lessons we can learn from Who Do You Think You Are?

In the US, the new series of the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? was just announced. I am a big fan of the show.

I watch three different series: the original UK version, the US version and the Dutch version (“Verborgen Verleden”). Although they all share the same basic format, it is interesting to see the differences. The US version is more about the human interest, the UK version is more about the historical context and the Dutch version often seems to try to cram as many stories into one episode as they can. What they share is celebrities who travel around the globe, effortlessly finding fascinating stories about their ancestors. While the show is sometimes criticized for making the research look too easy, there are several lessons that we can all learn from watching.

The most interesting stories may not be on your male line

Ever notice how the celebrity seems to switch randomly from male to female ancestors? That is because they are showing us the most interesting stories. By researching the female lines as well as the male lines, your chances of finding fascinating stories increase exponentially. Literally.

There’s nothing like standing in the place where your ancestors came from

Most celebrities on the show are lucky enough to travel to the places where their ancestors came from. There is something magical about walking in their footsteps.

I once made a video for a client when I was walking in Leeuwarden and happened to walk past one of her ancestors’ houses. She later told me that watching that video made her decide to come to the Netherlands. It was rainy, the camera was obviously handled by an amateur but seeing the street and the house where her ancestor lived was so special that all of that did not matter.

The expert you need may not be a genealogist

Several of the experts on the show are not genealogists. They may be house historians, economists or or experts on Freemasonry. To fully understand your ancestors’ lives, you may need to draw on related fields. We don’t need private consultations for that, we can also do a literature study into our topic of interest.

The most revealing records may not even mention your ancestor

I always love seeing the wide range of records on the show. Diaries, letters, reports of the prison warden: they find all sorts of records that most of us don’t have for our ancestors. What many of these sources have in common is that they contain stories by eyewitnesses. Sometimes, the ancestor isn’t even named in them, but just reading a diary by someone who was in the same camp, prison, or war can help you feel connected. Instead of just searching for the names of our ancestors, we should broaden our search to find out more about the places they lived and the people who lived there.

We don’t talk to our family about our ancestors enough

At the beginning of most episodes, the celebrity talks to his or her family to get a good starting point. Often, it will be the first time that they hear some of the stories. Some of them don’t even know the ethnicity of some of their own grandparents or will see photographs of their ancestors for the first time.

Have you heard all the stories that your family members know? Have you seen all the pictures? Do you know who’s in them?

The holiday season is coming up, which is the perfect time to talk to your family. In addition to having everybody bring their meat loaf or special salad, ask them to bring some heirlooms or photos and share the stories that go with them. As genealogists, we are the keepers of our family’s stories. Let’s collect them while we can!

Family gathering around the table for Christmas

Family gathering around the table for Christmas, Zeeland 1949. Credits: Spaarnestad Photo

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG® is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She holds the Certified Genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists and has a post-graduate certificate in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee. She has been doing genealogy for over 30 years and helps people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. You make some very valid points here about the show and what we can learn from it. Thank you.

  2. Virgil Hoftiezer says

    Thanks for a great synopsis about ‘Who do You Think you Are?’. There is also a series on public television about finding your roots which is also great, but truly makes it look so easy! Including the DNA studies for some guests. They do a lot of ‘picking and choosing’ as the program moves between guests. But both programs are inspiring and provide suggestions for all of us as you so nicely pointed out. Thanks for this newsletter.

  3. I LOVE that show.

    As Virgil mentioned, in the U.S. we also have “Finding Your Roots” with Dr. Gates on public TV, which is also really good. His show has done quite a few African Americans, where DNA is the best record of their origins, since U.S. censuses only counted slaves, they didn’t name them. I find watching people who thought their ancestry was unfindable learn how much can be known, very moving. There was also a six episode show on public TV called The Genealogy Roadshow, which can still be found On Demand and perhaps online somewhere.

    • It would be 18 months later that I would walk down that very street with Yvette. It was an amazing journey and she has found incredible information about my Dutch family. I am forever grateful for her work, and for facilitating such a wonderful visit in the spring of 2014. There is NOTHING like walking where your ancestors walked.

  4. Fay HOLMES says

    Thanks to all who contributed to this posting.It was most enjoyable to read and view.
    Whilst watching one of the Australian programs; featuring Robin Gibb of the ” Bee Gees”;I was amazed to be taken to one the “Paisley Weavers” workplaces in Scotland. It may have been in the same place my ancestors once worked. They arrived in Botany Bay 1853 aboard the “Beejapore”.
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year !
    Cheers Fay

    • I saw that episode too, fascinating. How special that is has parallels to your own family. That’s a great example of the fourth lesson, you can get a great idea of the lives of your ancestors by watching and reading stories about places where they were, even if they don’t mention your ancestor.

  5. my most interesting ancestors, thus far, are definitely not male. I’ve been doing the 52 Ancestors blog challenge this year. Most of my male ancestors were farmers. They lived in interesting times, but I had to find new ways to talk about farming repeatedly. On the other hand I had a 2nd great grand aunt who was a missionary to China as a single woman. She ran several schools there. She survived two revolutions and the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and was held prisoner on one handful of rice a. Day until she was part of a huge international prisoner of war type exchange by ships that had to meet in Mozambique because the Japanese wouldn’t allow allied ships in pacific waters. And she – thankfully – kept in regular contact with hometown newspapers! I’ve also a 3rd great aunt who was adjudged insane and was in and out of mental facilities, per the paper. Also, several of her children died in rather horrible ways that also made the paper. Those posts were much easier to write! 🙂

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