Monday, November 18, 2013

Professional Personal Historians

Photo courtesy of Jill Staggs, pictured.
Some of my most treasured possessions are personal histories about my own ancestors.

Creating and reading personal histories offer many benefits.  For example, these narratives help me understand my place in a larger context of extended family. And they make historical events such as the Civil War and the Great Depression more meaningful.

Some of these family histories on my bookshelf were penned by my relatives. However, others were produced with some help with a professional personal historians.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jill Staggs from Personal Legacy Memoirs about why people might choose to work with a personal historian.

  • They are overwhelmed by the task.
    Photo courtesy of
    Jill Staggs
  • They need help finding a focus.
  • They seek the objectivity of someone outside of the family. 
  • They need help generating ideas about what would interest others.
  • They would tell a more complete story to someone with strong interviewing skills. 
  • They aren't confident about their writing skills.
  • They don't have the skill to manage word processing or photo imaging software.
  • They want a higher quality final product by drawing on a professional's expertise.
  • They don't have enough time to dedicate to the task.

Jill enjoys working as a personal historian for a variety of reasons. It allows her to use her education in history and in the humanities. Her vocation also draws upon her experience as an editor. More importantly, it gives her the chance to learn more about people and to help them create something unique and meaningful. Jill observes, "When you know someone's stories, it connect you to them in a way that nothing else can."  

It's important to Jill that the client's personality shines through when others read the final product. "I work to preserve the client's voice," she explains. "I want the family to read it and hear them in the stories."   

In order to practice what she preaches, Jill produced a legacy book Farm Girl, World Traveler by interviewing her grandmother Clara about her life.  Part of the process included restoring photos of Clara such as this photo below, shown "before" restoration and "after."

Photo courtesy of Jill Staggs
Photo courtesy of Jill Staggs
Personal histories can include various types of information. They can include timelines, stories, photos, recipes, awards and so forth. They can take various forms: books, photo albums, video recordings, audio recordings, etc.  They become family heirlooms that are priceless to those who receive them. 

I have thought for years that I would work on personal histories for myself and my family members. However, I have let day-to-day concerns of work, housekeeping, volunteering and child raising push personal history to the back burner.  Now that I have entered midlife, it's too late to interview my grandparents. They've all passed on. Fortunately, my parents, step-parents and in-laws are all still living. But nobody--including me--is getting any younger! 

As the saying goes, "Time waits for no man."  Nevertheless, personal historians work with family members to preserve stories against the ravages of time.  Kudos to Jill and her colleagues for adding more pages to the history books, one individual at a time. 

If you have questions about the work of professional personal historians, you can contact Jill Staggs by email:

Add Personal Legacy Memoirs on Facebook to get a glimpse into the life of a professional personal historian. 



  1. It's amazing the interesting stories our parents, grandparents, and in-laws have to tell if we just ask!

  2. For years I've wanted to make a legacy book with my grandparents' story. I have all the letters he wrote to her while they were courting. Each one begins "My Darling Girl," and is written in the most beautiful script. You may have given me the prompt to get on that. :-)

    1. With so much electronic communication, I'm afraid that we won't have such treasures to document the courtship of today's couples. It's so great that you have those letters!