‘Personal historians’ in the press

Millions of people have great stories to tell–stories about personal adventures, families, brushes with history, successes and hardships, the mountain peaks and the valleys of their lives. But not everyone has the time, focus, or helpers necessary to record them. It’s frustrating to slowly forget these chapters of our lives, and scary to think that they might pass away along with an aging relative.

This is why more and more people all the world are paying personal historians to record the stories that matter to them.

What exactly is a personal historian?

A personal historian is someone who assists an individual or group in recording their life story. They help people write memoirs, create documentaries, websites, timelines, family trees, and a number of other products.

Is that a real thing?

Yes! If you don’t believe me, read this great article about them in the New York Times.

The author talks about the rising number of personal historians over the last decades, who have started an industry organization called the Association of Personal Historians (APH). Full disclosure: Tell History is also a member, and feature a number of APH companies on our marketplace.

Why is the practice taking off now?

The NYT article cites a several reasons. One person starting a personal history business, Kit Dwyer, told the NYT:

Our parents’ lives aren’t on the internet….We can’t find out about them if we don’t speak to them. And it’s slipping away.

As younger people snap and tweet even the small moments of their lives, they realize there are older generations who have documented most of their lives offline, carrying their precious memories in scattered physical albums, letters, or notebooks all of which are vulnerable to loss, damage, and misinterpretation. They also may remain undecipherable to family members without someone there to explain and decode them. A sudden loss can mean notebooks filled with hieroglyphics, and photos filled with mysterious faces.

And you’re lucky if a loved one has written down much at all, or has photos of meaningful moments in their lives. The sheer volume of things we document has exploded exponentially since we began carrying smartphones and Facebooking. Most people have precious little to show for their formative experiences in terms of physical documentation. They carry their memories only in their hearts and minds, which makes them even more vulnerable to loss.

The NYT article mentions this shift:

Even in an era when it seems every life is displayed on social media for the world to see, a whole generation is getting older, and its stories, if not written or otherwise recorded, will be lost. Serving that market is becoming a small-business enterprise.

Paradoxically it’s the proliferation of all sorts information that may be prompting more people to rescue stories, particularly those of older people who have little or no digital legacy.

These are not the stories that families tell each other at the dinner table or discuss over treasured photo albums. These stories take careful attention and time to draw out and document in a form worthy of the memory, something capable of passing through generations of friends and family members.

And people are willing to pay to have this done by a professional. The article quotes one man, who

declined to say what the book, which includes photos, family trees and recipes, cost him. But he said the service was well worth the money. “It’s my mother,” he said. “The cost doesn’t mean anything.

But not everything is about preserving the stories for others. Many are eager to pay on a personal historian because of the joy and satisfaction the process gives the storyteller. The NYT article referenced Mary Tyrell, who Tell History had the pleasure of meeting at an APH gathering near Oxford early this summer. Tyrell

mentioned her first client, a woman who was dying of cancer at 52. She was too ill to read her finished memoir, so Ms. Tyrrell read it to her. At the end, “she turned to me,” Ms. Tyrrell said, “and told me, ‘Now I realize I had a very wonderful life.

The do-it-yourself option

Of course, if you can’t afford the services of a personal historian to save important stories, there are ways you can do it yourself. 

To get the conversation started, we published this list of 50 questions to ask your grandparents, which may be useful for any elders in your family or community. If you do decide to film using your smartphone, here’s a list of helpful hints to get a great video, and here’s a list from our partners at Digital Storytellers.

For other sources of inspiration, you can browse through the stories people have submitted to us at Tell History. You can also read about Alice, our ‘citizen historian of the month’ who explains why she decided to record stories of people in her community. She joins a number of people including Mykaylo, Pietro, Eman, and Hakar who are sharing these stories with the world on Tell History.