Friday, November 8, 2013

Personal History Basics

Photo by andwhatsnext.
Every person has a story to tell.  Stories help us to preserve culture on the grand scale. What was life like during the Depression and the Dust Bowl?

Stories also help explain individual identity on a smaller scale. How does someone's own father describe his work as communications officer during the Korean War?

We are the stories that we tell ourselves.

Every experience, every memory serves as support for the major themes that emerge from our lives.  Through internal dialogue and conversation, we create and reinforce these stories.

But not everyone manages to document their personal history.  Do you have a written account of your great grandparents' lives? Or a scrapbook that has strong written explanations? Or a video of them telling their most significant stories?

I know a handful of people who treasure personal histories inherited from their parents, grandparents or great grandparents.  

Genealogy vs Personal History

I was raised Mormon aka a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not only is there a strong tradition of genealogy research, meaning collecting birth, baptism, marriage, and death records. There is a strong tradition of narrating lives well beyond these red letter days through journal keeping, scrap booking, oral history and written personal histories.  

The relationship between genealogy and personal history overlaps a bit. Some people even use these terms interchangeably. Embedded in the Wikipedia entry for "Genealogy" is a definition of both "genealogy" and "personal history" as set fort by the Society of Genealogists: 
[G]enealogy as an "Establishment of a Pedigree by extracting evidence, from valid sources, of how one generation is connected to the next" and family history as "A biographical study of a genealogically proven family and of the community and country in which they lived". [emphasis added]
Ideally, people should preserve both types of information--facts as well as stories.

Don Norton, personal historian and mentor

When I was an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, I took a 3 credit course on personal history from Don Norton. Not only was he a member of the English Department, he was the director of the Writing Center where I worked. And he served as editor on a number of university publications. Prof. Norton also spent years interviewing over 400 World War II veterans in order to transcribe, edit and help them publish their accounts of the war. 

As a first-year student, I declared an elementary education major before taking classes with Prof. Norton and working as one of the writing tutors he supervised. Because of his influence, I changed my major to English. He was my primary mentor during my undergraduate education.  

I used what I learned from Prof. Norton to document my own youth through scrapbooks. I also wrote up a few stories from my childhood. However, I have to confess that I spent the next couple of decades focused on my career and then on starting a family.  Personal history went on the back burner. 

Now that I've hit midlife, I feel an urgency about preserving personal histories for friends and family members from generation above me.  And given that I have lost a few friends my own age already, I can see the importance of doing some personal history work at midlife--if not earlier. 

How to get started

For those who have never studied personal history, the task might seem overwhelming. The most basic advice is to start on a small scale, documenting just one time period (such as high school) or one aspect (such as various jobs held).  Or people can start with the most recent events, such as a family vacation from just last summer.  People who want to start working on their ow personal history can find books or online resources to guide them them through the process. 

Some people may even want to hire a professional personal historian.  I recommend seeking information from the Association of Personal Historians

I had the good fortune of meeting Jill Staggs from Personal Legacy Memoirs here in Wichita. She has great training and experience to bring to the table as a personal historian.  In the next week, I will share a post about Jill's own views on the process of writing a personal history and her explanation about the role and benefits of working with a professional historian. 



  1. Wonderful blog post, Karen. When I started working as a personal historian several years ago, my biggest surprise was how meaningful the process of telling one's life story was. Genealogy has caught fire in recent years, and we're so lucky here in the Kansas City area to have such good resources for tracing our roots, but I hope more people will start realizing the value of their own personal stories. I feel incredibly lucky to work with my clients, and am endlessly amazed at what a powerful experience the process is for them.

  2. Amy, I am glad to hear that you had such a positive experience!