Category Archives: Advice

Your Genealogical Wish List for the Holidays

As much as we like to give during the holiday season – admit it – we like to receive too.  And as it is possible that the ones you love don’t quite understand how much you love working on your family history, you may just have to give yourself a genealogical gift this year.

What is your wish-list?  I will share mine, and perhaps it will give you some ideas for what you may need or gift ideas for our significant others.  Please know that the following are not endorsements for these products, just a few of my personal preferences.

  1. Subscriptions.  So many business are feeding our need for records.  I have a lot (don’t tell my husband!) of subscriptions to companies online including Ancestry, GenealogyBank, NewspaperArchive, and various genealogical societies whose websites offer more digitized records.  This year I’m planning to give myself a subscription to a new society, one I have been meaning to join.  Maybe it will be the Federation of Genealogical Societies or the Genealogical Speaker’s Guild.
  2. Conferences.  I could attend every genealogical conference in the country this year and still not be satisfied.  I love the feel of conferences, the commraderie, the vendors!  If I had to pick this year (and I really can’t), I think that I would enjoy the National Genealogical Society’s conference in May 2013.  On a personal note, it is located near some family and I could make the most of my visit by seeing them as well.  But let’s face it – its in VEGAS!  I am not a gambler at all, but I love the shows and the buffets.
  3. Books.  I think I would have to dedicate an entire website to the books I love on genealogy. I did an inventory once of all the books I have at Library Thing, but I had to stop once I reached 100 genealogy books, out of sheer exhaustion. Among my long list of published resources, one has been on my list for too long, and I think I just have to get it.  Its Joan L. Sevra’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840 – 1900, available at many stores.
  4. Stories.  It is crucial to keep stories alive.  Names and dates are well and good, but where’s the personality?  Where’s the voice?  My gift to myself will be a way to pass the story along to my siblings, my children, and all my relatives.  I can start small right now by deciding which family I want to highlight, collecting their information, and then choosing a media that best suits my story.  Of course, a Reel Tributes documentary is my first choice!  Talk about giving my ancestors their voices back. For something quicker and less expensive, ReelGenie promises to be an amazing tool. If only it were ready for this holiday season!
  5. Time.  My family thinks I am crazy (for many reasons).   This is mostly because I think a valuable family vacation should be spent in a state and local archives in New York where my ancestors came from.  What’s wrong with having family time in the cemetery, or the court house?  So I think one thing I would really like is my own “vacation” to work on my family history.   I have taken some serious time this year writing about my ancestors.  Now I want to walk where they walked.  This year: New York.  Next year: Scotland!
  6. Answers.  I would like to ask a favor of the universe.  Please send me the names of my fifth great-grandfather’s parents.  I am stuck!  Have you felt this way?  I often say that I am the only person to prove my ancestors were actually dropped by aliens, because there is no other evidence to refute it.  In all seriousness, I have taken to keeping an 8×10 framed photo of great grandpa James Wescott Whitman (1794 – 1878) in my office to inspire me.  So, if the universe is listening, that’s what I want most of all.  More family.

What genealogical treats would you like in you holiday celebrations this year?  I’d love to hear your ideas.  Inspire us with what genealogical gifts you are giving to yourself.  The trick is that when you continue to search out and celebrate your family, it becomes a gift to everyone in your family.  Happy Holidays!

Newspapers: They’re still worth reading!

We hear all the time how newspapers are dying. But don’t let that fool you. Their value to researchers remains high.  News items, especially in small towns, are a glimpse not only into our ancestor’s lives, but into the world they lived in.  How much would it have cost for shoes or for that new Model T that Grandpa was so proud of?  What were the political feelings of the time, and how do they differ from ours today?

Researching in local newspapers can also help answer many of the questions we have about our family.  Look for:

- Marriages, anniversaries, and births

- Obituaries

- Probate and Estate settlement announcements

- Visits from out of town

- Military troop movements for soldiers from the town

- Accidents and tragedies that would have affected your family

Where can I find newspapers?  First, contact the local library, historical society, or county historian in the area your ancestor lived.  Ask about indexes to newspapers, and if they are online, on microfilm, or in paper only.  Occasionally, if they are on microfilm, you can request an inter-library loan through your own county library for a small fee.  I have found unpublished index books created by local historical societies that cannot be found anywhere else.

Are newspapers online?  Many newspapers are online, but not necessarily the ones you need.  Some are indexed and some are not.  Some of the popular places to check for the paper you are interested in are:

- Library of Congress Chronicling America Project  (free)

- Newspaper Archive ($, free to use at LDS Family History Centers)

- The United States Newspaper Program

- Fold3.com ($, free to use at LDS Family History Centers and in many local libraries)

- Ancestry.com ($, free to use at LDS Family History Centers and in many local libraries)

- Genealogy Bank ($)

- Check your local library.  They often subscribe to historic newspaper sites that may be associated with surrounding areas.

What is OCR?  Online newspaper projects often use a system known as Optical Character Recognition software.  It allows newspapers to be word-by-word indexed and searchable.  It isn’t perfect, especially since the type face or copy quality of the newspaper may cause words and letters to be mis-identified.  When looking for my 5th Great-grandfather’s obituary at a site for Western New York papers, I had a hard time.  His name, James Whitman, finally came out as “Jamas” before I could identify it.  Be creative and patient in your search.

Don’t give up.  Newspaper research can be time-consuming, and is dreaded by avid genealogists.  However, it is also one of the most richest sources of information.  I finally found where James Whitman was buried.  No, not in his own obituary.  I found it in the third of FOUR obituaries for his daughter, Anna.  I knew that people often had multiple obituaries, but Anna was apparently very popular.  The third obit stated that she was being buried next to her parents.  That was the key.  Anna has a headstone, but two plots lie unmarked beside her.  Now we know.  What will you find out, with some research into the newspapers of your ancestors’ times?

What’s the best way to preserve my family history?

As a personal historian, I often get asked the basic question: How can I preserve my family’s history? While the question seems simple, there are many ways to answer this.

In this post, I will present a few of the options. That way you can understand what’s available and explore the best fit for you and your family.

Oral history: recording your voice

To begin, simply turn on a digital audio recorder and start to recall memories of the past.  This first recording session could be as simple as your telling your favorite family stories.  You could record memories of your mother’s great prowess in the kitchen, or your father’s antics growing up.

There are many books that can guide you through this process, providing questions and topics that you might like to speak to (see the list of recommended reading at the bottom of this post). You could also hire a professional – a personal historian to bring his or her expertise to the project.

Writing: jotting down your memories

Grab a pen and paper (or your laptop), and let the memories flow. Some of you will find this an easy and enjoyable task, others won’t. Writer’s block is a common problem, so don’t worry if you have a hard time getting started. Recording your memories takes determination and discipline. To help guide you, there are ‘fill-in-the-blank’ books that provide prompts and questions to answer.  These kinds of books can be infinitely helpful in creating content. One of our favorites is Our Family Tree and Album  – Edited by Samone Bos.

Looking for more inspiration? Find a local memoir writing class, and attend faithfully.  The class will help you with written self-expression, and the discipline needed to follow through with your story.  By the end of the class you will be well on your way to a full-fledged memoire.  These classes are typically offered through continued adult education programs at local community colleges, adult community centers, and local libraries.

Artwork: creating memories

Have you enjoyed scrapbooking over the years? Have you made a ‘shadow box frame’ containing personal memorabilia, which belonged to an ancestor?  Do you sew custom-made story quilts? Does your home have a family photo gallery? Artwork like this adds character to a home, and creates strong connections from one generation to another.  For the artistically inclined, a family history project is hard to beat.

Film: producing a multimedia experience

In beautiful high-definition, film is quickly becoming the go-to medium for personal history. Films can beautifully document a life story.  Regional accents, facial expressions, and personal recollections can all be captured on film, along with still photographs, family movies, and other personal mementos. Films also incorporate a musical score, to add drama and emotion to the story.

Click here to view some sample family history films.

This is just a short overview of some of the options you have in preserving your family history. I hope I have fueled your desire to kick off the project. You have a story to tell. Why not start today?

The following is a short bibliography of how-to books on the subject of personal history preservation:

The Story Only You Can Tell – Creating Your Family History With Ease and Expertise by Toni Sorenson Brown

Creative Journal Writing – The Art and Heart of Reflection by Stephanie Dowrick

Touching Tomorrow – How to Interview Your Loved Ones to Capture a Lifetime of Memories on Video or Audio

Legacy – A Step-By-Step Guide To Writing Personal History by Linda Spence

You Don’t Have To Be Famous – How to Write Your Life Story by Steve Zousmer

Learn more about Ethical Wills at http://www.ethicalwill.com

Check out the Association of Personal Historians’ web site for more information on personal history preservation.

What if I’m Nervous About Being Interviewed?

So you’re feeling a little anxious, shy or self-conscious about being interviewed for your personal history film? You really want to save your memories for your family but when you think about actually doing it, all you can think about is that public speaking class that you took in high school.  Your palms still get sweaty when you recall standing up in front of everyone. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

The concerns

You might be thinking about such things as:  What if I don’t know the answer to a question? What if I trip over my tongue or forget what the question was?  Maybe you’re worried about sneezing or burping during the interview. Or you’re concerned about being surrounded by cameras and lights.

You’re not alone

Well, the good news is you are not the only person who has these sorts of concerns. In fact, most people have never been interviewed on film before.

I’m here to help you get over those nerves.  I have been interviewing folks for fifteen years.  I understand where this nervousness comes from – it comes from a fear of the unknown.

Three reasons why you shouldn’t dread a personal history interview

Reason 1:  You can prepare. Before the actual interview you will have an opportunity to speak with the personal historian who will be interviewing you. You will have a critical part in creating the interview questions.  You will know the answer to each and every question because you will play a role in designing the interview guide yourself.  Know that the personal historian who is interviewing you is not trying to trip you up or turn the interview into an interrogation.   Her goal is for you to look and sound great throughout the interview.

Reason 2:  Editing is magic. Are you worried about tripping over your tongue, sneezing or even burping while on camera?  The beautiful thing about video is that the camera can easily be turned off for a moment and then turned back on when you are ready to resume.  A huge part of making a personal history film is the editing process.  This is when any of the blurps, bleeps or tongue contortions are edited out, proverbially landing on the cutting room floor.

The finished film will only contain the best of the best of your interview.  You will truly rival George Clooney or Audrey Hepburn!

Reason 3: You will feel relaxed. The personal historian takes great care to make sure you are comfortable and relaxed during the interview.  Before the interview begins, she will answer any questions that you might have. She will encourage and affirm you throughout the conversation. Whether it is a need for a bio-break, or the desire to re-phrase the answer to a question, it is the personal historian’s job to reassure you that everything is still okay and on track.

The camera equipment may initially seem imposing to you, but it is the personal historian’s place to create a connection with you. Soon the camera equipment fades into the background and it is the engaging conversation that becomes the focus.

Where do we go from here?

There is a little quote that I like a lot.  It goes like this:

Blessed are they, who know the way,

To bring back memories of yesterday.

Author Unknown

As a personal historian, I take my job and all that goes with it very seriously, and I know that other personal historians feel the same way.  I feel honored to play a small role in preserving your life story.

So, are you feeling a little better about the interview now?  Take a deep breath, and start the process of saving your stories while you’re on a roll.

What is a personal history film?

When I tell people what I do for a living, they often give me a puzzled look. “What is a personal history film?” they ask, wondering if I’m a historian, a filmmaker, or something else entirely.

I like to start off by explaining exactly what a personal history film is. Keep in mind there are a lot of names for this product, including video biography, video memoir, life history video, tribute film, or family history movie. For this article, we’ll call it a personal history film.

So what is it? A personal history film is a 30-60 minute documentary chronicling the stories, remembrances and history of an individual, couple, family, or a business. Think of it as a custom-made A&E biography. Rather than it being about someone famous, it could be about anything…including you or your parents. The film could be historical in nature, soaring through the highlights of a person’s life. Or it could be more philosophical, expressing one’s values, beliefs, hopes, dreams and the lessons learned from living life (commonly known as an “ethical will”). It could focus on one moment in time—such as grandpa’s experiences in the War—or cover 300 years of family history. The possibilities are endless.

With the use of today’s digital technology, a personal history film can record a person’s life as no other medium could do in the past.  What makes a personal history film so special? Rather than explaining it with a list, I thought it would be more interesting to ask you to consider the following:

  • Seeing your grandmother’s sweet facial expressions as she recalls memories of being a youngster in the 1920’s.  She tells of the summer she spent picking blackberries and being paid just enough money to buy a special dolly at the local Five and Dime.  Her cat Sally sits on her lap as she tells this particular story while being filmed.
  • Listening to the loving tone of your mother’s voice as she reflects on becoming a mother for the very first time.   She speaks of her initial concerns about being a good mother, but recalls that upon caressing you for the very first time, all her fears vanished.
  • Watching Uncle Joe smoking his cigar, telling his corny jokes and doing his all-too-familiar magic tricks. Somehow everything old is new again.
  • Hearing your great aunt Rosemary share stories of living through WWII.  She talks about ration tickets, black out curtains, not having real butter to spread on toast and having to walk to and from church on Sundays because there was no gasoline to put in the family car, a 1939 Nash LaFayette.

Did these elicit an emotional response? They are the sorts of memories of the past that can easily be captured on film (but less so in a book or an audio recording).  Of course your own stories will be a little different, but that’s what makes personal history films so powerful: they’re tailored to each person, each family, and each moment in time.

One of my favorite quotes is from Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the Irish dramatist, novelist and poet.  Wilde said, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”  Today, think about moving some of your special memories from your (mental) diary to a timeless digital film. And if you’re interested in learning more about personal history preservation, I highly recommend the following books:

The Story Only You Can Tell – Creating Your Family History With Ease and Expertise by Toni Sorenson Brown

Ethical Will – Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry K. Baines, MD.

Tell us about your own personal history film. What has it meant to you and your family?