I suspect there will be a number of blog posts relating to the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show that took place at London Olympia at the weekend. It was that kind of event.
My experience of any such shows or exhibitions is limited to a trip to the Ideal Home Exhibition about fifteen years ago, and I suppose I was expecting something similar. In fact I was surprised not to find a man demonstrating a multi-purpose grater or suggesting I have a go with his vacuum. However, it was not nearly so impersonal, hectic or anxiety inducing. No scrums, few queues, and instead of girls hired for the day to wear a tight t-shirt and offer you a kitchen brochure there were a lot of interesting stands hosted by friendly knowledgable people.
In fact this show is literally all about people. Admittedly the majority of them are dead, but those still with us are possibly the nicest crowd you could hope to meet. I met lots of people who had previously been entirely ‘virtual’, spent an hour with a cousin with whom I had previously only discussed our common ancestors over email and was able to discuss my writing with editors of magazines direct. It was even possible to pitch early ideas for books to publishers. ‘Networking’ is a word that hardly does the day justice from my perspective.
What is my perspective then? After WDYTYA Live I am actually less sure than I was. I had assumed I was not someone who could claim any measure of expertise; was a little ‘family history-lite’. In fact, if much of what was being described in the workshops on the main stands was anything to go by I am further down the road to understanding the sources than I thought. It seems I have been asked to write articles because they are on popular subjects that people like to read as they sit with a cup of tea and a biscuit and flick through whichever family history magazine they may have invested in. For me it was a boost to the confidence. However, perhaps the fact that it could so easily do that for a show virgin like me exposes one of the weaknesses of its present format.
As I understand it from those I met who have attended over a number of years, there used to be many more local family history societies and archives in attendance. With the success of the shows like WDYTYA itself and others like Heir Hunters, it has become more the domain of the big internet genealogy companies such as Ancestry and FindMyPast. Many smaller societies, genealogy companies and even the National Archives no longer attend – it is too expensive to rent the space, pay the staff to cover the stand or offer the discounts on products or membership. This means that I was thwarted in my hopes of meeting members of family history societies covering North London, something that may have taken my research much further forward than having a go on the latest version of Family Tree Maker. Apparently, representations were made to the bigger companies at the after show parties. The drinks must have flowed freely – there was agreement to support the smaller stands at future events.
That will be good news not only for the societies that didn’t attend at all, but presumably for some of those that did. I was lucky enough to have the company of Luke Mouland from Kith and Kin Research for much of the day, having travelled up with him from Somerset on the coach at an ungodly hour of the morning. Late in the day we wanted to find the stand of the Friends of the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection. Despite the help of Mike at Family Tree Folk we wandered around, vainly looking for a blue lamp at the very least. Time ticked away – we had to leave to catch the coach home or risk a night in the doorway of the local kebab shop. Then, just as we were about to give up we saw them. They could only have been ex-coppers. Tall elderly men with a surprisingly good head of hair for men of nearly 80 who had spent years of their life with a reinforced hat on. I can’t speak for Luke, but I do know that we were both really glad we eventually found them, tucked away as they were almost in the toilets. We had a great time hearing the stories of their work on the streets of Limehouse, and were incredulous at the news that they can find no-one to back their campaign for a permanent Met Police Museum. Countless uniforms, records, photos and other items invaluable for social historians are currently homeless. These men are justifiably frustrated. Perhaps we should get the organisers of WDYTYA Live VERY drunk and suggest a pot that supports small organisations like this? Online genealogy is big business, but we must never forget that much of the real knowledge is with those ‘on the ground’.
Anyway, this was not meant to be a rant. I had a great day. I would like to thank Luke Mouland, Rosemary Morgan, Mike Kostiuk, Marie Dougan, Chris Paton and Emma Jolly for welcoming me into the genealogy fold, Peter Heather for being a lovely new addition to my short list of cousins and Audrey Collins for her invaluable pre-event advice – comfy shoes and a bottle of water. Roll on 2012.