RootsTech, where we spent the weekend, as its name suggests was heavy on using tech tools for family history. There were sessions on software, apps, social media galore. Our own Stories To Tell sessions focused on using Microsoft Word and Adobe Creative Suite to self publish family history books. With the conference’s emphasis on high tech, it was great to see that the idea of family history as storytelling didn’t get lost.
Ian Tester, a product manager at BrightSolid, a British online publishing company, offered a Friday session titled "Telling Stories: Transforming the Bare Facts of Genealogy Into the Astonishing Tale of You and Your Family."
Said Tester, basic genealogies often don’t capture family stories. They “…are stark and bare — they are the bones, they are the skeleton; they’re not the meat of the story. They don’t record that very well."
Storytelling requires us to dig deeper, to “… take the facts and put something on top. We embellish. We make creative decisions on top of the facts."
"When you put yourself in the place of your ancestors and you empathize with them and you realize suddenly through 150 years of history how hard their life was or how fantastic their life was or how they were like you," Tester said, "(those moments) are the thing that keep people doing family history."
How does a family historian become a storyteller who can display that kind of empathy?
Ira Glass, host of the popular NPR program This American Life, speaking in Milwaukee a day later offered his audience some storytelling advice. Look for the “everyday extraordinary,” he suggested. Glass’ stories focus on common people who become heroes when doing extraordinary things. What makes glass such an effective storyteller is that in the lives of ordinary people he is able to find universal themes.
It takes a willingness to find those common themes in family stories that will allow the family historian to achieve the empathy Tester was describing.
Real family history lies well beyond the vital records.