When I tell people that I’m a personal historian, sometimes I hear “A what?” or “Are you a genealogist?” I reply, “Genealogy and personal history are related fields,” and then I explain, that I help people tell their life stories and preserve the recordings for their families and future generations. Immediately, they’re telling me about a relative who really should do their memoirs. Or sadly, about a relative who just passed away and used to tell great stories but no one got a chance to write them down and now they are gone forever.
That is how I became a personal historian. I was working as an archivist when my father asked me would I record my grandmother. Over the course of three consecutive Saturdays we recorded over 4 hours of material, the response across our family was astounding. I received countless calls, cards, letters and e-mails thanking me for preserving a wonderful life in its entirety that would otherwise have been lost. I had long before realized that all people’s lives are so rich to them and their families and future generations but with the massive reaction that I received from my own family, I decided to become a Personal Historian to assist people in ensuring that their families’ stories are not lost. When you think about it, why should it only be famous people who record their lives? How many times have you heard someone say – ‘I wish we had recorded all their stories that they used to tell’.
What does a personal historian do? A personal historian steps into other people’s lives for a brief, intense time, asking questions about their background, ancestors, events and experiences that shaped their lives, relationships, foibles, struggles, accomplishments – whatever memories, thoughts, feelings and reflections they wish to talk about and have preserved. In a typical project, I guide a person through the telling of their life’s stories (or some aspect of their life) for a number of hours, record the interviews and organise, edit and preserve the recordings into a polished narrative and write an accompanying poem inspired by the person’s life.
Growing Trend in Personal History
In the past ten years, interest in memoirs, genealogy and family history has exploded. Memoirs consistently dominate the bestseller list and not just those written by celebrities (or their ghostwriters). Historically, writing one’s reminiscences was reserved for the elite; stories of everyday people were largely lost. Today, there is a groundswell of memoir recording, genealogy is said to be one of the fastest growing pastimes. Sites, like Ancestry.com have hundreds of thousands of members and television programmes like Who Do You Think You Are have millions of viewers.
With technology changing our world so rapidly, we are realizing that we need to capture the old ways before everyone forgets what they were like. We’re honoring the past like never before and are hungry for firsthand accounts of people who were there and who themselves are living history. Our stories are being preserved in hundreds of institutions, museums and archives; and produced in documentaries, movies, television programmes and books.
Storytelling is in our souls. For thousands of years, the elders of a family or society have used stories to teach, entertain, pass along wisdom, explain the world, share joy and heartache, and preserve the history of the society. In the modern world, we are in danger of losing the passing along of wisdom and experiences from generations. But most people want to document their lives somehow but never get around to it, simply because it is so overwhelming. I can ensure that everyone has the opportunity to save their stories, because almost everyone can talk. Telling as opposed to writing, is a natural, easy-flowing way to express oneself. At the best of times, it’s nothing less than a spiritual experience, emotions often run high, on both sides. It is no accident that the surge in interest in family history has accompanied a more holistic approach to life. Studies and surveys are proving that life review and reminiscence is great for health and well-being. Telling your life story, found Robert Butler, a Pulitzer-prize winning author renowned for his studies of healthy aging, has definite benefits; I have witnessed this firsthand as my clients report a sense of completion and newfound peace and contentment. The process of telling your life story is usually extremely satisfying for the narrator.
Is this for you?
Yes! One of main objections people have “My life is not interesting enough.” That is not true, there is no such thing as a boring life. A Life Story Recording is an incredible gift both to the narrator and their families. All families have a box of memories that maps their history – this is ordinarily in the form of photographs, family trees and heirlooms – all things that would be the first thing that you would rescue from a burning house. A Life Story Recording is a remarkable addition to the family history – hearing the person’s voice, accent, cadence, laugh – recounting their life in its entirety and from their perspective. It is an affordable option for ensuring that there is no regret that their stories will not be lost.