Libraries Gain Fame on TV Show "Who Do You Think You Are?"

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by Christina Stoll, Managing Editor of I Love Libraries, ALA

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Historical Society

The popularity of family ancestry and genealogy continues to grow with each new generation.  The launch of  the NBC show "Who Do You Think You Are?" (WDYTYR) in 2010 only added to the interest in people and celebrities alike wanting to know more about their families past.

Libraries and archives have always been known as keepers of family histories, but now they are gaining some fame for their roles both behind and on the screen. The following interviews were conducted with three libraries who participated in past episodes of the WDYTYR.

Brooklyn Historical Society and Rosie O'Donnell

Interview with Chela Weber, former Director of Library and Archives, Brooklyn Historical Society

The Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), was founded in 1863 is an archives and special collection library. The BHS collects family papers, corporate and government records, oral histories, photos, film, periodicals and books that document the history of Brooklyn and Long Island from the time of Dutch settlement of the area in the 1600's to present day.

Chela herself received the phone call from one of the WDYTYR researches working on the Rosie O'Donnell  episode. The show researches had some initial information about a specific incident in O'Donnell's family history regarding a fire in a tenement building in Brooklyn in the 1880s. They needed help with finding documentation about the fire as well as visuals to show what the living conditions were like during this time period. Othmer Library at the Brooklyn Historical Society; Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Historical Society
Before the show aired, BHS staff performed a lot of local research, looking though early Brooklyn city newspapers on microfilm as well as photos. They would scan the information they found and send this back to the show researchers who were putting the story together.

During production, BHS served as one of the on location libraries to be filmed, and Chela herself got a part in the show. Sadly, her mock reference interview with O'Donnell landed on the cutting room floor. While Chela was initially nervous about doing a reference interview with a celebrity, she quickly realized it was much easier than a regular reference interview for she already knew the questions that were going to be asked, and the answers!

One of the outcomes of the experience was seeing the dramatization of the research process for TV, which in reality for the librarians took many hours of work. Given the show compresses a lot of work into 60 minutes, one of the challenges for the BHS staff since the show aired has been helping patrons understand that they shouldn't expect to walk into a library, sit down with a staff member and walk out a short time later with their entire family history. A lot more work was involved behind the scene, which the BHS staff enjoyed being part of and seeing how the story evolved and what parts through production were given more emphasis versus others.

The impact to being part of the show was immediately after it aired, they received emails, and have since seen an increase in genealogy questions from their patrons. The bigger impact is how the show is bringing to light the different kinds of libraries outside of public and school libraries.  People may not be aware that an archive or historic library is open to the public, and that people are encouraged to visit and bring their research questions.

If you want to know more about BHS email them at

Genealogist Meets Lionel Richie & Vanessa Williams

Interview with J. Mark Lowe, Genealogist and On-Camera Talent for Season 2

I have been a professional genealogist since 1998 and a Certified Genealogist since 2000. I currently serve as the Director of the Regional In-depth Genealogical Studies Alliance and as an instructor at the Institute for Genealogical & Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, AL, and the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. My background also includes being a School Principal/Teacher and a Volunteer at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

My involvement in the show came about having worked on prior projects including the PBS television series African American Lives and Faces of America. For WDYTYA  I did extensive research for the Vanessa Williams and Lionel Richie episodes, appearing on camera for the Richie show.

In the research phase, I worked with Producers and other Researchers to uncover records and storylines. It was also important to provide information regarding potential film locations.  Producers would often seek guidance on availability of finding records regarding a particular un-researched storyline. Producers came to visit locations for production scheduling and storyline. There were many questions about the history of place, time and people in the area.  There were documents important to the story which were located and often digitized for production.

To contact Mark, email him at

Nashville Public Library and the Metropolitan Nashville Archives - Lionel Ritchie

Interview with Tricia Bengel, Main Library & Technology, Nashville Public Library and Ken Fieth, Metro Archivist, Metropolitan Nashville Archives

The Nashville Public Library (NPL) serves Nashville, TN and Davidson county with a population of approximately 600,000 residents. We have a Main Library, 20 branches, the City Archives, a radio relay service and house the statewide Library Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. We have almost 400 staff members and we're recently awarded the 2010 National Medal for Museum and Library Service

The Metropolitan Nashville Archives, a division of the Nashville Library, was established by Executive Order in 1982 to preserve the historically valuable permanent records of the government. Currently, we have 5,000,000 records dating from 1780-2000 in three buildings.  We have four full-time staff members and a cadre of volunteers. Funding is through the Library and from our Friends of the Metro Archives.

NPL was part of the show that featured Lionel Ritchie, and the Archives was used for the segment within this episode on City Directories, and even became part of the filming for a portion of the show.

The show’s producers came to the Archives to conduct research. In the process of locating documents, we were able to assist in providing all of the records used in the show from Davidson county.  We conducted reference interviews to determine what types of records a researcher needed, but did not know who the star was until that person arrived for the filming.

While Tricia served as the primary contact assisting the producers with gaining the necessary permissions, Keith, as the City Archivist, was the primary contact for all historical research and to make sure the correct records were at the proper location when needed. 

If you want to know more about NPL email Tricia at, or the Metro Nashville Archives email Ken at

The Degrees

  • BHS staff hold 3 Masters in Library Science, with a range of specializations and certificates including a graduate Certificate of Archival Administration and specializations in rare books, special collections, and visual materials, and a librarian with a second Masters in Archives and Public History. Plus, the Photo Assistant will be attending library school later this fall.
  • Mark is a Certified Genealogist (
  • Tricia has her Masters in Library Science.
  • Ken has a M.A. in Historic Preservation and a Certified Archivist degree.
  • Archives staff have Bachelor's in History or related fields. 

Tools Used

  • County and State Government records
  • Glass plate negatives, an early photographic format, which can be digitized with a specialized scanner to create photos
  • Manuscript finding aids
  • Maps
  • Microfilm reader
  • Newspapers
  • National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC)
  • Online databases
  • Photographs

Tips for the amateur home genealogist

  • Be patient, your own research will take longer than the show's air time.
  • Check out your local public libraries, historical and genealogical societies, municipal or government archives. If you’ve never been to this type of library, don’t be afraid to ask questions. The staff are there to help, and want you to use their collections.
  • Often libraries and history societies offer free classes on genealogy research.
  • Consider university archives and churches, which often collect records that can help with family research. 
  • Genealogy is more about the birth, marriage and death dates. As you gather information about your family members, the secondary sources such as books and newspaper articles can help paint a picture of what it was like to live in that place and that time, and help you imagine what your ancestors lives might have been like.
  • Be persistent. 
  • Focus on each individual – try to understand their personality, occupation and life choices.
  • Don’t forget to learn the local history of their home area.  Remember that their story is what keeps you researching and sharing.  Keep your mind open as you learn more and always be willing to ask new questions.
  • Start with what you know and work backwards.
  • Interview older relatives and take notes about names, dates and especially relationships. 
  • Check out online databases such as and Heritage Quest, which can save a great deal of research time.
  • Determine as much about the who, when, and where of your ancestors as possible and then contact local archives, libraries and historical societies to determine what they may have.

Best thing about being part of the show or other remarks

Chela - There's a whole other world of sources beyond what you can find via the internet. Don't be afraid to ask for help and search out other types of libraries.  Archivist Librarians are passionate about their jobs and love the discovery of the research just as much as the people whom they are helping to reveal their past.

Mark - Working on WDYTYA was a great opportunity to introduce genealogical research to its viewers. It was a real treat to have the opportunity to share wonderful family stories with the celebrities.  It also provided a chance to learn more about the history of this area and a myriad of interested local folk who were uncovered by the research.

Tricia – It was a lot of fun working with the WDYTYA staff – they were very respectful of our building and materials, enjoyable to work with and it was very interesting to watch the filming.  It was also a lot of fun to meet Lionel Ritchie who was extraordinarily gracious to all of the staff.

Ken -  What I love about my career is the opportunity to observe people as they connect with ancestors whose voices are now long silent. The crew granted me that observation with a major star; a rare opportunity.  I would recommend them highly and without reservation.

"Who Do You Think You Are?" returns this fall for Season 3 on NBC.  Be sure to watch, for you never know what library is going to become the next star. For more information about the show visit