How a Personal Historian Can Help
As a society, we are in the process of losing the best qualities of our historical documentation and storytelling. The average person’s daily life and experiences during significant moments in history were previously captured in letters, journals, and through the tradition of oral history all of which are on a dramatic decline. Busy schedules have certainly attributed to the loss of some of these traditions. Likewise, instead of the former of communication practices, we have now email, text, or telephone and these forms of communication are not traditionally saved for posterity.
The saddest thing is the loss of the oral history tradition. Television has replaced those magical evenings out on the porch listening to the family tales. Quite often families no longer all live in the same community, much less have multi-generations living under one roof, so you don’t get the elders spinning those wonderful yarns time after time. Consequently, the bit of oral history we do experience at holidays is far too infrequent to have those stories become a part of the fabric of our lives. As families lose their history, so society loses its history. As families and communities lose their heritage, people tend to lose a sense of their connection to the family and the community. Thus as a society, we lose a great deal: a sense of our heritage, our purpose, our connection, and obligation, to the greater whole. We are in great need of independent historians: people recording or penning their life stories. In this way we can assure that our story is not just told through the daily headlines and TV talk shows!
So, how can we save our history? How can we remedy this loss? We can record our memoirs, our recollections of family members now gone, and the tales we were told about the family history. We can interview those who have stories to tell, which are important beyond the family because it is the day-to-day life, the ordinary, not the extraordinary, that tells the true tale of how life was led. Companies, small and large, can chronicle the arch of their company’s growth and challenges through interviews with the founders and leaders. Not only does this leave a record for the descendants of the founders, but company histories are very much in demand at archives for business students. Also, at the historical center in the town or city where the company is located.
These records are important legacies. Within the stories you are passing on your values and character traits you deem important. The spirit of the family or company is captured. The problem with writing one’s own life story is that people don’t get around to it. They procrastinate. Most people see the sense and importance of leaving a family journal. Most people remark they’d like to write their memoirs. Nevertheless the majority simply procrastinate.
Of course, the bottom line, is recording people for their stories and then writing the narrative account from those interviews and other research. Procrastination is a huge factor. Kristin often talked about recording her father, a Pulitzer Prize newsman…who was also responsible for Irish Coffee. She never got around to it. Busy lives in another obstacle. And then one day it is too late. Duffy’s father was also a journalist who covered the landing of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis in Paris and wrote several books about Hollywood celebrities, but he, too, died before Duffy could capture his father’s personal history on tape.
We have known people who give someone a recorder so that they go off in a room and tell their stories to the recorder. This usually doesn’t work. People are social animals. We may enjoy telling stories and enjoy having people ask about our experiences and relating them, but sitting in a lonely room—recording yourself, talking to yourself—does not have the same energy. Most of us need an audience.
When one of our clients, Lillian Cochrane Giles, had her book party, a book about her life, her granddaughter choked up, she said, “I’ve known this woman all my life, yet I didn’t really know her.”
As personal historians, authors and journalists, we welcome being able to help you record your story.