Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book Review: Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are? The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and published by Viking/Penguin Group, was released today to the public, and is available on Amazon Books in hard-cover book and Kindle format, and in major bookstores.

The book is a companion guide to the NBC Television series Who Do You Think You Are? that starts on March 5 and runs through 23 April (8 p.m. EST/PST, 7 PM CST/MST) in seven episodes. The episodes feature celebrities Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Susan Sarandon, Lisa Kudrow, Spike Lee, Brooke Shields and Emmitt Smith.

For genealogists, the profiles of the celebrities is interesting and fine examples of genealogy research. However, the celebrities are not the major part of this book. Each one has two or three pages that summarizes their heritage and their ancestral search. All of that will be covered in the television series, of course.

The real purpose of this book is to provide a basic introduction to genealogy research for readers/viewers who are interested enough in their own ancestry to buy or borrow the book. The book contents include:

* Preparing for your ancestral hunt - start with what you know, go on a treasure hunt, talk to the folks, organize and chart your findings, don't believe everything you hear, and all about names.

* What resources are online? - a brief review of,,, USGenWeb and rootsweb,,, and, government records, Google, libraries, archives, societies, ethnic, magazines,,,,,,,, genea-bloggers (7 of them, not Genea-Musings), and several social networks.

* Chapters about the Census Records, Military Records, Vital Records, Military Records, Immigration and Naturalization Records, other records (brief summaries for church, newspapers, court, cemetery records), and DNA testing.

The "Sleuthing in Action" chapter describes Megan's research on President Obama's Irish roots and finding the "real Annie Moore" as success stories.

The last chapter is "Passing it On" - advice to ancestry-seekers on how to protect, preserve and share the results of their sleuthing.

* There is no index in this 204 page book, but it is laid out very clearly and probably doesn't need one.

Throughout the chapters, Megan uses illustrations of records for famous people (arts, politics, and her own family) to demonstrate the record types and their value. These are really interesting, and made the book intriguing for me - I could hardly wait for the next illustration! Online resources are mentioned in every chapter, but the reader is advised that many records are not yet online.

In summary, this is a very readable genealogy tutorial book which beginning genealogists can use to get them started in their research. Intermediate genealogists will find it useful for the up-to-date treatment of repository and online records. Advanced and experienced researchers will not find anything to help them with specific research problems or new methodologies. The book is intended to be a "getting started" or "get going again" tutorial and succeeds.

It would be excellent as the first genealogy book on the shelf of a new researcher trying to learn the methodology and record types involved in genealogy research. It should be on every library's genealogy book shelf and on their circulation shelf too! It would be very helpful as a guide book for a beginning genealogy class sponsored by a library or a genealogy society.

Wouldn't a DVD with the book set be great as a birthday or Christmas gift for a grandparent or adult child to try to get them interested in family history?

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in the mail earlier this week, through Megan Smolenyak's good efforts. I have received no money or other remuneration (not even a mention in the book) for writing this review. I really liked this book (could you tell?), and hope that it educates many new genealogists!
UPDATED 6:30 p.m. - added a line about advanced genealogists in response to Mary's comment.


Unknown said...

I curious - as a 'seasoned' genealogist did you learn anything new from it? Or glean anything helpful to yourself?

Anonymous said...

I saw this advertised and dismissed it immediately thinking it would be too much about the celebrities. Thanks for letting me know it has some value.

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak said...

Thanks a million for your thoughtful (and swift!) review, Randy! I'm beyond happy that you found it useful. I'm especially pleased that you enjoyed the examples I scattered throughout the book. And please excuse my sleep-addled brain for neglecting to include Genea-Musings. Kicking myself for that.

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