Category Archives: Storytelling

Storytelling That Matters @RootsTech: Unlock Your Superpowers

We are all amazing storytellers. And our talents can be extraordinary gifts to the people we love.

No one knows this better than Reel Tributes CEO David Adelman, whose passion for family history was ignited by the touching story his mother told about his grandmother’s life through film.

David recently headlined a RootsTech event on “Storytelling Superpowers: How to Come Off as Your Family’s Genealogy Hero.”

His message was transformational. Genealogists are not just passionate hobbyists, but also the superheroes of their families. Their powers are unseen yet extraordinary as they work behind-the-scenes to create the narratives that bind families together. He urged aspiring family historians to use their storytelling superpowers for the greater good… starting right now.

“It’s the stories, not the data that people will remember.”

Get inspired! Click here to watch the speech:

Holiday Gatherings: A Perfect Time for Family History

holiday dinner

As we prepare for the holidays, let us take advantage of the time we spend with relatives to ask about their own lives or the lives of ancestors they may have known, or might have inherited documents or stories about.  One of the most effective family history research tools we have is our living family.  Holiday gatherings are a perfect time for meeting with family members for stories or an interview.  Planning ahead is the key to success.

To prepare for an upcoming gathering where you might be able to find out more about ancestors, try one or more of these ideas:

Decide which family groups or stories you want to talk to relatives about.  It’s best to focus and not try to overwhelm the people you are interviewing with all your questions on the family.  Choose one or two family groups to start with, for example, ask about Great-Grandpa’s three wives and 17 children, or if Great-Uncle Dolphus really did go west to pan for gold in ’49?  Often, those stories will lead to others.

Ask ahead for an interview.  Call or contact the people you want to talk to at least a week or two before your holiday gathering. Let them know what you’d like to talk about and what to expect.  Giving your interview subject a chance to think about the ancestors you are interested in gives them time to think and they’re less likely to be stumped for story ideas.  They may even remember some family photos or memorabilia to bring with them.  Most of all, they will likely be more willing to talk if you ask ahead than if the first they hear of it is over the table at the holiday feast, just as they’re contemplating their after dinner nap time.

Read up on interview techniques and questions.  I like the basic interview questionnaire prepared by FamilySearch (a printable pdf document).  Other great resources are Kimberly Powell’s article, “50 Questions for Family History Interviews,” or  Alice Chapin’s book Reaching Back. AARP also has some fun Story Starters. Many of these are designed for a person to record their own family history, but the same questions can spark family stories of ancestors of long ago.

Plan how to record the interview: There are three basic types of ways to record your interviews.  1) Taking notes by hand, 2) audio recording, or 3) video.  The pros and cons are:

  • Taking notes by hand.  Pro:  The least intimidating to the shy interview subject.  Con: It’s slow, you are likely to miss things, or garble your own notes.
  • Audio Recording.  Pro:  Not very intimidating or distracting to the interview subject.  Con:  Background noise!  Even worse is when you have more than one person in the room answering questions over one another, its hard to transcribe later.
  • Video.  Pro:  This is my favorite method.  If multiple people speak, it is easier to distinguish the speakers.  You also have some great footage for future video productions, such as a Reel Tributes personal documentary.  Con:  Your interview subject may be so shy or uncomfortable in front of the camera (How’s my hair?  Is this my best side?) that you may not get the information you need.

It’s not a test.  Many interviewees may feel like the interview questions are more like test questions, despite your best efforts to make them comfortable.  Start off with something you know that they know, not a question they may not have the answer to.  Start with leads like, “I heard you got in trouble for smashing a cookie jar when you were little…”  or “Didn’t you have a dog named Buddy…?”  Also try taking photos with you that might inspire stories.

Accept now that you won’t get everything in one interview.  Sometimes we are so anxious to get the information we want, we may cut off some stories the family member is telling to get to what we believe is the “meat” of our interview.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy. You won’t get everything you want in one interview.  What you will do, though, is build a stronger relationship with the interview subject.  This may lead to that person calling up later with photos, memorabilia, or information they found, especially if the interview was a positive experience.

In essence, family history is about family.  Enjoy your time making new memories about sharing old memories, and build those relationships even stronger.  Happy Holidays!

Giving Thanks for Our Immigrant Ancestors

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Did your ancestors participate in the very first Thanksgiving?  Tough to tell. Very few of us can trace our lines to those early immigrants.  We can, however, appreciate what our own ancestors did to come to this land, and why they made those choices.  Thanksgiving isn’t just about Pilgrim stories, its also about those who brought their own families here over the generations.

What is Your Immigrant Story?

Let’s take some time to appreciate our immigrant history, and ask questions or research their stories.  Ask yourself:

  • Did your ancestors come because of religious persecution?  To avoid war?
  • Did they only intend on making a living and go back to the mother land, but never actually returned?
  • Did they come through Ellis Island, or even before that?
  • How did their American experience change their culture, customs, and names?
  • Does your family still carry on any customs from your immigrant ancestors’ lands?  Foods, language, holiday traditions?
  • Did they travel first class or steerage?  What was the difference?
  • What jobs did the ancestor take when they came?  What challenges did they face?

How Can I Research My Immigrant Family?

Here are some tips to starting a research project on discovering your immigrant ancestor:

  • First, ask the family for stories – what have they heard?
  • Researching an immigrant from the 1900s is easier than researching one in the 1700s.  Start with later generations.
  • Do you really know where they came from?  Start with censuses.  For example, one census may say they were from Poland, another may say “Galicia.”  Poland was broken up into three parts in the mid-1800s and Polish immigrants from Galicia were on the Russian-controlled side.  Research the history of the lands for better insights.
  • Death records may give more information on birthplaces. Check the death records for their children too.
  • Church records sometimes state the place your ancestor “removed” from when they came to that congregation.  Which churches were closest to where they lived for their denomination?
  • Check for cemetery headstones – they may have specific birthplaces or symbols that indicate origin.
  • Did they naturalize?  When did they arrive?  The 1900 census asks those questions, and some others ask related questions.  The dates given were sometimes  incorrect, but it gives an idea of where to start.
  • They may have petitioned for naturalization in a local county court or in federal court.  Check both.
  • Many websites give information on a particular culture or immigrant group.  A good link to these is on Cyndi’s List and the FamilySearch Wiki.

Above all, spend some time this Thanksgiving holiday thinking about our ancestors who made the brave journey to America. Take the opportunity of  quality time with your relatives to discuss the family lore and uncover new stories about your past. If you learn something exciting, let us know!

Nostalgia: It’s good for you!

 Nostalgia

When I was a child back in the 1960’s, I distinctly remember the unmistakable smell of burning leaves during the fall months. My father would rake leaves into a heaping pile at the end of our driveway. He then lit a match to the pile of leaves, and to the cherry tobacco in his wooden pipe.  He would attentively stand next to the burning leaves, smoking his pipe until the last leaf was gone.  I was usually sitting on the grass nearby, watching the leaves go up in smoke and talking to my father.

This memory is sheer nostalgia for me.  As I recollect this sweet memory, I am moved emotionally. A smile naturally emerges.

I recently read an article in the New York Times, “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” that shed some light on these emotions. The article discussed how nostalgia has been found to have real and measurable benefits. Several studies have discovered that people who reminisced about past events gained a sense of belongingness and continuity. Participants in the study reported feeling less lonely or anxious, and gained a more positive mood after reminiscing.

As a personal historian, I’ve seen this happen countless times. One in particular stands out. Some time ago I interviewed a 98-year-old woman from Oakland, California. When I first approached “Fritzi”, I explained that I would love to ask her about her memories of her childhood days.

She pushed back. “Oh, I don’t have any memories of those days,” she complained, and stared blankly at me.

I again gently asked her if we could turn on the recorder and see if any memories would surface.  She finally agreed.  Near the end of the 15-minute interview, Fritzi had told me about going to the community swimming pool near her home in Portland, Oregon. She was ten years old at the time. She told me that girls were only allowed to swim on Mondays and Wednesdays.  Boys were allowed to swim on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Fritzi continued to tell me that she wore a dark blue striped heavy knit bathing suit and that her mother tied her long hair back on the days she went to the pool.

I was shocked at the details that came forth during those 15 minutes.

And to cap it all off, Fritzi pulled out the large family photo album, which she said she had not looked at in many years. She said she wanted to show me pictures of her family.  Within a few moments she opened to a page showing a photograph of a very young Fritzi wearing that dark blue striped bathing suit and her hair all pulled back.

After a little while had passed, I asked Fritzi what she thought about being interviewed.  She said, “That was fun!  I didn’t think I would remember anything but I did.”

She paused for a long moment and with a big smile on her face, she said, “And I loved to swim!”

What are you reminiscing about? What emotions has it brought out in you? Share your experiences with us and we may write about it in a future Reel Tributes Blog post. 

Using FamilySearch

 

Today we’re bringing you a short introduction to some of the amazing contributions FamilySearch is making to the genealogical community online.  There are online tutorials available, but let’s first whet your appetite for this amazing research tool.

How can Family Search to help me? The Family History Library in Salt Lake is full of microfilms.  These microfilms represent filmed records from all over the world, including such things as birth records, court papers, marriages, family books, land records, and much more.  These microfilm are available and can be requested to be sent to a local Family History Center (FHC) for a nominal cost. Using these microfilms enables the researcher to broaden his or her research without too much travel.  The FamilySearch website is now putting many of these microfilms online for free, and a great number of those are linked to a search engine for faster access.

When I click the Search button what am I looking at? This first page is your access into digitized records.  You need to register first to be able to see any of the records, but it’s free.  Let’s discuss what you can do from here.

There are three distinct ways to research in FamilySearch:

  1. Search Engine.  Try entering name, dates, and location for an ancestor you are researching in the fields given at the top of the page.  Your next page will be a list of hits for that search, with closest matches listed at the top.  To look for a specific type of record, scroll down and click “Collections” in the box on the left.  This will open a smaller box with types of records hit for this search such as vital records or censuses.  These search hits represent only those microfilms which have been indexed and inputted into the search engine.  Be warned that not every microfilm or even every digitally reproduced microfilm is represented in the search engine.  FamilySearch invites volunteers to help index their digital records to make them even more accessible online through their indexing program.  When you open a hit, often it leads to an index page.  Towards the bottom of the page is a film number that the record was indexed from.  Take down this number and check the catalog to see if it is digitized, but browsable only, or available to order and send to the local FHC.
  2. Browse.  Many of the digitized microfilms are not represented yet in the search engine, but are online.  Think of these like using a microfilm on a traditional reader, but in the comfort of your own home.  From the search page, scroll down to the section “Browse by Location.”  This represents all the digitized films, but when you click on a place, you will see either a number (the number of records in this group) or the words “Browse Images.”  When you click on this it will either take you to a second page to narrow your search to a more specific location/record type or straight to the first page of the microfilm.
  3. Catalog.  If the record type you want is not in the digitized collection, check the online catalog to see if it has been microfilmed.  Remember that not everything you need has been microfilmed, but the FamilySearch staff does continue to search out records and ask permission to film new ones all the time.  A current project includes FamilySearch staff and volunteers who are working with the National Archives to digitize Civil War pensions.  To search the catalog, use a place name where your ancestor lived, and check the record types that come up.  If you found a film number from a hit off the search engine, enter it from this page as well.

You might also explore other tools from FamilySearch, such as the FamilySearch Wiki, Learning Center, Research Assistance, and more.  Technology today has made so much available to genealogists, and we appreciate all those groups who contribute their time and talents to helping us find our families.  Let us know what you’ve discovered to tell your family’s story!