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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 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?