The Blog

How it all Began: 15 years ago, 15 hours of tapes

Fifteen years ago, I had no idea what a personal historian did. I hadn’t heard about the value of preserving one’s life stories. And then everything changed.

My budding interest in personal history began one sunny morning in San Francisco. I was sitting in my grandmother’s lovely second story apartment.  We had just eaten breakfast together and were sipping cups of lemon tea and talking about our lives.  My grandmother, Frances was 95 years old. I was 45.

That’s when the moment happened.

My grandmother casually began to speak about her long life and the year she came to San Francisco from Sellwood, Oregon.  The year was 1922 and she was 20 years old.  She was making that big ‘break’ from the grips of parental control.

San Francisco was quite a place to live in the 1920’s.   This was a decade full of events that would forever impact a young impressionable woman from the quiet suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

My grandmother told me about dancing the ‘Charleston’, watching Al Jolson perform at a ‘speak easy’ while bottles of pure grain alcohol were hidden under the table, just in case the establishment was raided.  She spoke about her new short, cropped hairstyle, and wearing her custom-made ‘flapper-style’ hat that fit close and tight to her head (see photograph above).  She recalled hearing about Charles Lindberg’s now famous flight in the Spirit of St. Louis and about the Scopes’ Monkey Trial that shocked the nation.

I sat in awe as I listened to this sharp and introspective woman speak.  Then I stopped her. “Grandma, this is too special,” I explained. “Would you mind if I record this conversation?” She was surprised that I wanted to do this, but didn’t put up a fight. She almost seemed excited that I cared that much about her stories. So off I went to Radio Shack to purchase several audiocassette tapes so that I could record her memories.

So that was the beginning.  Over the next five years, and through many visits to San Francisco, I was able to obtain 15 hours of my wonderful grandmother’s stories and reflections. What a treasure these recordings have become to my family! Every once in a while we sit down as a family and listen to them. My kids and grandkids love it just as much as I do.

This experience turned me into a vocal advocate of preserving personal history.  I am pleased to know that since those first interviews at my grandmother’s kitchen table, I have gone on to help many many others to record their memories. And that each and every one has become a priceless family treasure, just like ours.

Are you as excited about family stories as we are? If so, tell us how you first got interested!

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Indexing – Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness

I love working on my genealogy and researching for clients.  I research just about every single day, and some of that research is done online.  Every time I find something helpful, I congratulate myself and celebrate a little.  Too often though, I don’t think how that information was made available for free online.  The answer is that many volunteers all over the genealogical community are offering their time reading old documents and creating indexes to make it easier for me to search.  Many websites offer these volunteer services, such as www.findagrave.com, www.deadfred.com, and www.usgenweb.org.  Untold thousands of hours are contributed by volunteers.

In this post, I’d like to suggest a site that gives all of us a chance to contribute to the online indexing of historical records.  It’s fun, easy to use, and worth every minute of time you can give:  It’s the program spear-headed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) at https://familysearch.org/volunteer/indexing.  This program takes on the herculean job of making an online-searchable database for almost all of the microfilms created and housed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City – the genealogist mecca.

Any person (preferably over age 12) can download the simple software, watch a five-minute video on how to index, and get started.  Participants download a “batch” from which to extract information.  Each batch consists of a page or two of a record, such as death certificates, passenger arrival records, and censuses.  The screen will show the record at the top and a set of data-entry fields at the bottom, requesting parts of the record to be filled in.  If you have trouble, the program offers lots of help from handwriting samples to more tutorials, and even hands-on help from a live trained volunteer online or over the phone.  Each batch is reviewed at least three times for accuracy, unlike some earlier indexing projects.  The scale of this project is impressive!

My favorite of the indexing projects right now is the indexing of the 1940 census.  In a joint effort between the LDS Church and the National Archives, each page of the census is becoming every-name searchable.  The images are relatively easy to read and so incredibly valuable to genealogists, historians, and statisticians.  The “greatest generation” of the 1940s is being honored again.  Go to https://familysearch.org/1940census/ to see an interactive map of how much indexing has been completed in each state to date.

My daughters are in high school and middle school respectively, and their school counselors have approved any hours spent in indexing the 1940 census as part of their required Student Service Learning Hours (students in many states must complete 70 – 80 hours of volunteer service to qualify for graduation).  I woke up the other morning to the most wonderful thing:  my girls arguing.  What were they arguing about?  Who got to index first, and who was the best at it.  Made me so proud…

I love to index.  It isn’t something I do for myself or my clients.  Offering an hour or even a few minutes a day just to make some record more accessable to someone doesn’t do a thing for me.  But I get that warm-fuzzy feeling all the same.  I am a busy mom, and I work too, but taking a little time for this little random act of genealogical kindness is certainly a valuable endeavor!

The Truth: But What If I’m Not Sure? (Guest Post)

When creating a memoir or family video, you will inevitably come across bits of information that you want to include, but which you cannot verify. You’ve ascertained all the facts that can be checked. But then you know all kinds of other stories that nobody can authenticate. For instance, there’s a legend in your family that your great grandfather almost won a Nobel Prize. Or you believe your parents were not in love with one another. Can these claims be proved? Not likely.

All you can do is use your best judgement to infer the truth. Here we offer 3 tips for doing that:

1) Include the “inferred truths” in your story. These stories can strengthen your recollections and add meaning which would otherwise be lacking.

For instance, your parents were married in 1930. Most young couples are without solid financial backing when they start out. Your parents, as much as you (and anyone else) knows, didn’t have a “rich uncle” to ease them through these first years. Are you justified in concluding they must have felt the effects of the Depression during their first days together?

You can’t “prove” this, of course. If, as scientists do with their theories, you proceed as if your hypothesis were true–that your parents must have had a lean time of it then–what insight does this assumption give you about decisions they made during those years, or about attitudes they held in their later life together? Interpretations like these, based on reasonable inferences, can make another person’s life more understandable and your portrait more colorful.

2) Attribute your interpretations. Start with phrases like “If that were true, it seems to me that…”, or “We’ve always been told that…” Your interpretation or inference will take its place as a possible truth in the story you are telling. And the reader or listener will be able to distinguish the cold hard facts from the stories that are harder to verify.

3) Avoid cliches. As you allow yourself to arrive at conclusions in this way, be sure to recognize clichés. These are the ill-fitting shortcuts that actually obscure the individuality of your characters. If you find yourself saying, “Everyone in those days was like that,” let the alarm bells go off! You have left the firm ground of inference behind and are tromping into the dangerous swampland of cliché!

Family histories are inherently uncertain. Don’t let that scare you away, or limit your storytelling to the basic facts. Although they are quite different from verifiable truths, your inferred truths have a rightful place in your story. Your readers and listeners will appreciate the effort.

This post was contributed by Denis Ledoux, founder of the Soleil Lifestory Network. Denis is an accomplished ghostwriter who helps clients write memoirs, one story at a time. Denis was selected as one of the top 10 personal history bloggers of 2011 by Dan Curtis. For more information on Denis, including how to get a copy of the free Memory List Question Book, visit www.turningmemories.com.

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Your Next Summer Vacation at The State Archives

Planning your summer vacation?  Going to the mountains? The beach? Well, how about a visit to the state archive?

The state archive may not be the first destination to come to mind. But don’t overlook their importance. State archives are so full of information, and no two are the same.  Often, not only do they have extensive libraries of published indexes, but they have so many records that are not available anywhere else.  Before you jump in the car, however, there are a few things you might try first:

  • Check out their websites.  A great one-stop-shop for finding the state
    archive (and any associated contributing historical groups) is put together by the Council of State Archivists at http://www.statearchivists.org/states.htm.  Choose your state and off you go.
  • At the website, check for digitized records online.  You’ll be surprised to see how many different types of records are available – death, military, historic photos, and more.  Most archive sites have a link conveniently titled “Genealogy.”
  • At the website, check the online catalog.  Use the catalog to plan what you need to look at when you get there, how it is stored (textual records, microfilm, fiche, off-site), and any restrictions for use. Every archive website is set up differently, and some are a little more difficult to navigate than others.
  • Ask about the loan program. Did you know that many state archives participate with your local library in an interlibrary loan program?  For example, I knew it would take weeks to do line-by-line searches in old handwritten copies early of New York county tax records. When I checked the online catalog I found that the microfilm could come to my local library.  There are sometimes costs for this, but in my case, there was only a limit to how many films I could order at one time.  Those eight films took me four weeks to go through, but it was four weeks I was able to spend on my own time from home, and not a four-week trip to New York.
  • Don’t like the website?  Keep trying.  I used to hate the website maintained by my own state.  The problem was partially in the way records were named, but the problem was more about my own inexperience.  The more I used the site, the easier its navigation became.  If you need help, ask around.  Is there anyone you know at your local genealogical society who uses the site often who can tutor you?  It is worth the effort.
  • Plan the visit! Most archive websites have rules for using the facility, hours of operation, parking information, photocopy costs, rules for computers and cameras, and even short tutorials to help you.  Read up – you’ll end up frustrated if you go there and it is closed because of a holiday or you cannot find parking.  When you get there, ask if they offer tours of the facility.
  • While you’re there, look for county records. Sometimes the state archive may solve your burned county conundrum.  Many times counties were required to send copies of their records to a state facility.  Even if the county archive burned down (again!), copies of many types of records may have been obtained by the state archive.

Maybe going to a state archive isn’t your family’s idea of a good vacation destination or maybe you don’t have time to go right now.  Have a digital mini-vacation and visit the website of your favorite state archive and get familiar with its holdings.  Personally, I am bartering right now with my husband to go to any state archive near a baseball stadium – that way we can divide and conquer as we travel.

What works best for you?  What have you enjoyed or found at your state archive?  Write and share your ideas. Happy trails!

Touch Tomorrow (Guest Post)

Imagine

Close your eyes and imagine. You open a dusty photo album to a faded photograph of your great-grandfather. You gaze long and hard at his face. It is an interesting face. It is a face that reveals character, humor, tenacity. It is a face that resembles your face.

You’ve heard his existence led directly to your existence; the conditions of his life led directly to the circumstances of your life; his ingenuity and hard work created your destiny.

But who was he, really? What events shaped his life? What were his dreams and hopes?  Why did he work so hard? What were his choices and challenges? Why did he believe in the family business? What were his thoughts and feelings?

Unfortunately, no one bothered to ask.

You close the album, slowly, and ponder: just what was my great-grandfather’s story?

Intangible Asset

Families understand the importance of trusts and estate plans. Multigenerational transfer of tangible assets such as stocks, bonds, cash, real estate, art, jewelry, antiques, collectibles, and country club memberships is commonplace.

Although tangible assets are important, there is an even greater, often unrecognized, intangible asset: the family’s story—the story that tells what the family has been, who it is today, and what it can be.

Obligation

Mrs. Lavern Norris Gaynor, heiress to the Texaco fortune, suggests that is the family’s obligation to tell its story. She closes her memoir, Lal: A Legacy of Gracious Giving, by saying:

“This brings me to the end of my story—but not really. My story didn’t begin on my birthday. And, now, it won’t end with my death. Through the experience of telling my story, I’ve come to understand it was my obligation.

I close with love, blessings, and a peaceful heart. Finally, the Norris family legacy of generosity, caring, and gracious giving will reach out and touch tomorrow.” 

Touch Tomorrow

Family stories can touch tomorrow in a range of ways. I’ve touched on a few of them below:

  • Recording and celebrating the family’s history
  • Passing on values, traditions, goals, and culture
  • Affirming the family’s mission, core purpose, and original dreams
  • Bestowing knowledge and wisdom
  • Sharing hard-learned life lessons
  • Sustaining and building family relationships
  • Creating a sense of belonging and loyalty
  • Offering advice and guidance
  • Documenting and preserving philanthropic traditions
  • Giving meaning to the human experience
  • Building a lasting legacy 
  • Promoting the continuity of a family business

Story Forms

Many people tell me they understand why it’s important, but don’t know where to start. Luckily, we have a variety of forms to choose from when telling a family’s story:

  • A Family History is a comprehensive approach to recounting the people and the events that span generations. Family histories include genealogical research and are rich with social context events.
  • A Memoir is usually told from the perspective of a single narrator.
  • An Oral History preserves stories in a question/answer format. Transcribed verbatim and lightly edited, it records the exact nuance, flavor, tenor, and tempo of the narrator’s voice.
  • A Chapters of Life Memoir preserves life’s defining moments—life’s steppingstones. It is an anthology of short stories usually built around a collection of photographs.
  • A Business History records the stories, mission, values, and aspirations of a company’s founder(s).
  • A Culinary Memoir preserves favorite recipes, stories, and photographs. Recipes are scanned in the cook’s handwriting and, complete with spill marks, they memorialize life’s favorite meals and events.
  • A Tribute to Life Memoir honors the life of a deceased loved one. The story is told from the perspective of a family member or cherished friend.

Ultimate Memoir

Then there is the Ultimate Memoir. The Ultimate Memoir is, well, ultimate. It is a beautifully designed, heirloom-quality book and companion video. Any of the above story forms are appropriate. Narrative, combined with custom design, complemented with a professionally orchestrated video, creates a vanguard presentation of the family’s story.

Someday List Syndrome

Whichever form your family selects, the operative word is “selects.” Way too often a family scribbles “tell our story” on the Someday List. But when the Someday calendar page turns, it’s too late.

Please don’t allow your family to become a victim of the someday list syndrome. Start today. You won’t regret touching tomorrow. And your family will thank you– for generations to come.

About the author:
Dr. Judith Kolva is a personal historian, with a Ph.D. in the psychology and practice of preserving life stories. Her seminal doctoral research investigated the relationship between telling life stories and identifying meaning in life. She is the founder and CEO of Memoir Shoppe, an international organization that preserves and protects the stories of exceptional families.  Please contact Judith at judith@memoirshoppe.com or www.memoirshoppe.com