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    Making Family History Books Interesting for Young Readers

    In a recent post on the Grove Creek Family History Blog titled “What is Family History?” blogger Rayanne Melick posed a question most family historians face: How do we engage children and grandchildren in the family’s history? Melick explained that her son said to her, “Mom, whenever people ask you what you do for fun, you say family history. Do you ever notice that their eyes glaze over?”

    Since the younger generations are the intended audience for most family historians, certainly most of the authors we work with, capturing children’s interest is essential.

    So let’s look at what people who try to do this for a living – authors and editors of books for children – suggest.

    “If you want to teach young read­ers about the Irish potato famine…tell them a story,” says Susan Brown Taylor author of several historical titles for children including Robert Brown Sails to Freedom.

    Family history is, of course, rooted in fact, but as Reka Simonsen, Editor at Henry Holt and Company says, "Storytelling is storytelling. In nonfic­tion, the story happens to be true rather than invented, but the same rules apply: There should still he a strong story arc; there still has to be a problem that needs resolution; the characters have to be fully developed; there must be moments of dramatic tension and emotion of whatever kind appropriate to the events.”

    Stories help kids learn to think by engaging their curios­ity," says Shannon Barefield, Senior Edi­tor at Lerner Publishing Group. "It makes readers ask, `Then what hap­pened? Why?' and so on…storytelling techniques can bring to life a subject's significance in a way that just-the-facts writing can't always do. It's crucial for kids to learn the nuts-and-bolts facts of the Holocaust, for example, but to learn the human side of those events is critically important as well.”

    Once engaged by family stories children may find themselves drawn into the pursuit of  more knowledge about their ancestors. Judy O'Malley, former Editori­al Director of Houghton Mifflin Books says, "I prefer to focus on the literature of fact books that tell the shaped story of what is known about lives and times, and that include the documentation of those facts that model for young read­ers how exciting authentic research can be. That leads them to read further and deeper, starting with the author's trail and following wherever their pas­sion for the subject leads them.”

    So as you plan and organize your family history book make sure it has plenty of family stories to appeal to the young audience for which it is intended.

    Click here to read Rayanne Melick’s post, “What is Family History?”




    Begin Your Family History Book With the End in Mind

    Stephen Covey offered some sound advice when he said that highly effective people “begin with the end in mind.” That’s certainly true for family historians setting out to create a book. It would be difficult to ever get your family history into print if you didn’t have a pretty clear idea of what it will look like when it’s printed.

    In some of our workshops Nancy and I use a simple exercise to help authors at the beginning of the process of creating a book visualize the finished product. It’s designed to help focus on the book’s intended audience. We ask the workshop participants to create a dedication page for their book by answering two questions:

    • Who is this book for?
    • Why are they special to you?

    Having decided upon whom you will be writing for, you can decide what will make your book special for that person.

    Many people we meet want to write a book for their grandchildren. A book for younger readers should focus on a lively account of ancestors using stories and anecdotes to pique the kids’ interest. You should also understand that younger readers growing up in a digital world are often much more visually oriented than their elders so effective use of photos and other illustrations will be an important way to draw them into the book.

    On the other hand, a person whose goal is to create a serious document for future family historians and genealogical researchers will want to emphasize facts, documentation and sourcing. Charts and graphic may be very effective in organizing the factual details of the book. Extensive footnotes or endnotes on sources and documentation will play a more important role in your book.

    Your initial visualization of the type of book you want to create will help you decide the best way to organize your family history research and make choices about what to include and what might better be left out. It can also help you decide how you might deal with more than one goal while focusing on you target audience. If you are writing primarily for the grandchildren you can still attend to source notes and documentation in an appendix or even in a CD placed in a sleeve on the inside back cover. The kids may never look at it, but future researchers will thank you.

    Some early thought to the exact type of book you want to produce will save you a lot of time during the creative process and will help you produce a much better book in the end.




    Every Author Needs an Editor

    I am always interested when someone chooses to write about book editing, so it’s no surprise that I was happy to find Alex Clark’s article “The Lost Art of Editing” in The Guardian’s online edition.

    Clark laments changes in the publishing world where the bottom line of the conglomerate has become more important than the quality of the books sold. Says Clark, “For some years now – almost as long as people have been predicting the death of the book – there have been murmurs throughout publishing that books are simply not edited in the way they once were, either on the kind of grand scale that might see the reworking of plot, character or tone, or at the more detailed level that ensures the accuracy of, for example, minute historical or geographical facts.”

    He recalls one particularly amusing incident: “One evening at the end of last September I found myself all set to interview Jonathan Franzen about his new novel, Freedom, on the stage of the Southbank Centre in London. I had anxiously worked and reworked my list of questions, but while my preparation was not in vain, it was swiftly put into perspective by an unexpected turn of events. It transpired that Franzen had that very afternoon, during the filming of a BBC television programme, discovered that the UK edition of his novel contained a number of errors – errors that he thought had been corrected during previous stages of production. In other words, the copies of the novel stacked high in the foyer, not to mention the tens of thousands on their way to bookshops, were not as Franzen, or indeed his publisher, intended.”

    At first glance, none of this may seem like it pertains to a memoirist or family historian considering limited distribution or self publishing. But on second thought, Clark demonstrates that even our greatest writers need a diligent, skilled editor. Experienced, thoughtful editors help authors shape the content of their books to make sure their stories are well told. They also help authors to make sure that they are correct on the sentence level.

    With the decline of editing in publishing houses and the rise of self publishing an increasing number of authors are turning to independent editors to help them make sure that their books are the best that they can be.

    Unfortunately a fair number of self publishing authors skip the editing step or gloss over it. Having a sympathetic friend or writing group review a manuscript is not the same as what an author gets from a skilled editor. The result can be a book with a story less sharply drawn than it could have been and a series of errors that could have been avoided.

    Even after a good editor has helped polish your manuscript, realize that the final responsibility rests with you, the writer. Diana Athill, who as an editor worked with literary greats like Phillip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike and Simone de Beauvoir, and after retirement wrote Somewhere Near the End, a memoir which won the Costa Prize for Biography, observed “The answer I found for myself is that I take much more trouble than I used to in the line-by-line editing of my own manuscript, and I think authors should now take that responsibility on themselves if they don't want to be annoyed by minor details.”

    Click here to read Alex Clarke’s article “The Lost Art of Editing”



    A Graphic Approach to Family History

    Family historians often find themselves awash in a flood of factual data gathered from their genealogical research. How should you present the facts in a book? More importantly how can you make them lively and interesting when you do? Fast Company Magazine’s online site offers a feature called Infographic of the Day. Yesterday’s suggested an approach to presenting biographical and historical facts that might be useful to a family historian.

    One page of Nicholas Felton's Timeline. Others focus on other stages of his father's life.

    The feature spotlights a project by award-winning New York graphic designer Nicholas Felton. In 2005 Felton began creating a graphical Annual Report reports in which he displays data compiled from his everyday activities throughout the year using ingenious charts, diagrams and maps. Says Fast Company, “For 2010, he's created a masterpiece. Instead of looking at his own life, he's captured the entire life of his father, Gunter, who passed last September.”

    “Gunter worked as an elevator engineer and settled in California, which in all honesty sounds pretty structured and even, perhaps, boring. In actuality, Gunter was a fascinating man who led an unbelievably textured and rich life: Here was a guy who was born into Nazi Germany, was bombed by Germans during World War II, traveled to 48 countries, met the Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, and in old age practiced Tai Chi and saw Willie Nelson play with the Yamato Drummers.”

    Nicholas Felton

    Felton’s tribute to his father is a long way from the rather mundane family group sheets, pedigree charts and timelines that appear in family histories. True, he does have a family tree graphic and several timeline pages documenting his father’s life. But vibrant color, dramatic typography, and photo inserts transform these often staid items. He uses atlases to show his fathers residences, socializing and travel. Felton even includes a bar graph of books his father read categorized by genre and an electrocardiogram. These facts jump off the page and Gunter Felton comes to life in his son’s tribute.

    Take a look! While you might not have Felton’s graphic design skills – I certainly don’t – you may get some ideas of how you can enrich your family history book by finding unique ways to present your facts about your ancestors.

    Click here to visit Fast Company’s Infographics of the Day: A Son Honors His Father’s Life with a Masterpiece



    Photo Choices in Your Family History Book

    Have you ever watched a person look through a book they’ve picked up for the first time? If it has pictures, you can bet that’s where they’ll stop to take a look. That’s great news for family historians who have photographs to use in creating an illustrated book. Good pictures will make the book much more visually attractive, especially for younger readers who are growing up in a digital age.

    To gain maximum advantage from your photos there are some important choices to make:

    • Which photos will be featured? After reviewing your photos decide on 10-15 you think are excellent. The two best can be used on the front and back covers. Others can be displayed throughout the book as full pages (or significantly enlarged if the original is too small).

    • If you don’t have many photos to use in illustrating your book, there is an alternative. Scanned family documents or photos of the time and place where ancestors lived, which can often be found by consulting local libraries, historical or genealogical societies, can give a sense of the lives your ancestors lived.

    Historic buildings  in Deadwood, South Dakota

    • There are a number of considerations in placing photographs. When possible, locate photos to accompany the text describing people or events in the picture. It is often wise to group photos of the same branch of the family tree to accompany their stories. However, not every image is, or must be so literally connected to your stories. To include more loosely related photos, you can group them together or place them between chapters. You can place up to a dozen photos on a page, but you may want to limit groupings to two to four photos so that they are bigger for better visual effect. We don’t recommend photo collages because they are often difficult for the reader to comprehend.
    • Consider whether the image needs identification (who, what, when, where, why, how). Not every photo needs a caption, and documents often speak for themselves. Consider grouping pictures without captions in some sections of your book. Self explanatory photos, such as multiple images of the same person, are better off without a caption.
    • Graphics like timelines and charts often benefit from effective use of photos. For example adding wedding pictures and fiftieth anniversary photos to a timeline can bring it to life. Thumbnail photos of heads of different branches of the family will bring a family group sheet will make it more interesting.



    Identifying People in Old Family Photographs

    Are you a mystery fan? I am. I love to watch detectives on the trail of clues, unraveling the past before my eyes.

    Old family photos can offer the mystery-lovers among us a chance to become the detective. We’ve all got at least a few of those family photos that are interesting and probably important, but they feature people we simply can’t identify. It’s frustrating, but don’t throw the photos back into a box and bury them back in the garage. Here are some tools to help you discover your mysterious ancestors.

    Kimberly Powell on offers 5 Steps for Identifying People in Old Family Photographs. Her suggestions:

    • Identify the Type of Photograph – Daguerreotypes were popular from 1839-1870, Cabinet Cards from 1866-1906, and no Polaroid photo could have been taken before 1948 (when the Polaroid camera was invented).
    • Who Was the Photographer? – Check the front, back and frame or cover of the photo for the photographer’s name and possibly location. Local city directories, libraries, and historical or genealogical societies can help you track when the photographer was in business.
    • Check Out the Scene or Setting – Clues to the time or location may appear when the family is posed in front of the family automobile or home. The Family Chronicles site on Dating Old Photographs suggests that it is often possible to establish the date by carefully comparing with other pictures of known date. For example, note details in the painted canvas background used for a studio shot. The drapes or woodwork in the scene may be clues to the photo’s date.

     Visit Family Chronicles Dating Old Photographs to see how to date this photo.

    • Focus on Clothing or Hairstyle – The Costume Detective website helps you to analyze costumes, fashion, hats, and jewelry to achieve a date within five years of the date the photo was taken. The Costumer’s Manifesto site offers numerous links for dating old family photographs, using fashion history and styles of photo-mounts. It promises, “These links are provided so you can teach yourself to do this for yourself.”

    Visit The Costume Detective to see how to date this photo.

    • Match Up the Clues with Your Knowledge of Family History – Once you’ve identified the time and place of the photo, use your knowledge of ancestors to begin trying to identify who is in the picture.

    Click here to read Kimberly Powell’s 5 Steps for Identifying People in Old Family Photographs

    Click here to visit Family Chronicle’s Dating Old Photographs

    Click here to visit the Costume Detective

    Click here visit the Costumer’s Manifesto



    Tools for Preserving Your Digital Family History Files

    We’d like to thank blog reader Richard Skooter who commented on our previous post “how to Digitize Your Family History.” Richard advised, “I'd like to add that once you've digitized your family's information, store it online so it won't become lost due to a hard drive crash or lost or stolen CD-ROMs. And you won't have to transfer the files from one to another every time you buy a new computer.” I agree.

    Preserving data is essential. CNET UK’s Cloud Computing Guide offers a simple explanation of  online storage is a great way to achieve this goal:

    “…backing up data to the cloud means you're backing up data to a hard drive in a secure data centre via your Internet connection, instead of just to a hard drive in your house. In fact, that data centre might be located on the other side of the world.

    Using cloud backups, you've removed from your shoulders the burden and stress of protecting whatever device your data is stored on.”

     Richard recommended two services for online storage. Amazon’s S 3 and Rackspace.

    Amazon S 3 promises to protect your data with a “a highly durable storage infrastructure designed for mission-critical and primary data storage.” New users get up to 5 GB of storage free for a year, then modest fees kick in. The Best Techie website review concludes, Amazon S3 provides a highly durable storage infrastructure designed for mission-critical and primary data storage.”

    Rackspace is a bit more expensive. But Clloud which offers “Web Hosting Tips and Reviews” observed, “We quite like that Rackspace Cloud File comes with a control panel to allow you to manage your files, unlike Amazon’s S3 that throws you in at the deep end so-to-speak and expects you to find your own tools.”

    We’d like to add a word about our own favorite, Dropbox. Dropbox promises, “A single secure place for all your stuff.” This includes providing you easy access to files from all of your devices including phone, laptop and desktop. Says CNET, “It’s a breeze to use, works as intended, and is stable.”

    As you make the transition to digital files for all you family history research, documents, photos and objects consider one of the many good options for online storage to assure that your data will always be there.

    Click here to read the CNET UK article Essential Backup Services Compared

    Click here to visit the Amazon S 3 website

    Click here to read the Best Techie Review of Amazon’s S 3

    Click here to visit the Rackspace Storage website

    Click here to read the Clloud Review of Rackspace

    Click here to visit the DropBox website

    Click here to read the CNET Review of DropBox



    How to Digitize Your Family History 

    Got questions about digitizing your family history research?

    Make it Digital available on the website of Digital New Zealand has answers. “The Make it Digital approach is to identify elements of good practice for digital content creation.”

    The site offers guides to digitizing documents, photographs, audio and video. There are a series of Guides to various aspects of the process of creating digital content. The most relevant for family historians and genealogists is the Guide to Digitising Family History and Whakapapa (Maori Genealogy). (One thing you’ll see is the British spellings of some words like digitising.)

    The Guide begins with a section to help you “Choose What to Make Digital” which includes the Make It Digital Scorecard to help you decide.

    The “Create Longlasting Digital Copies” deals with issues like how to digitize family photos, documents and objects, the best scanner settings and image formats, and digital cameras.

    There is a section on “Recording Family History Digitally” with information on both audio and video recording and a separate guide to “Transferring Oral Histories from Cassette to Digital.”

    The final section offers advice on “Protecting Your Digital Copies.”

    Make It Digital offers simple, but complete advice to people who need some guidance in navigating the available digital technologies to enhance their family histories. It’s definitely a site worth visiting.

    Click here to visit the Make It Digital site and the Guide to Digitising Family History and Whakapapa



    New Books for Memoirists, Family Historians and Self Publishers

    My bookshelf is stacking up. I have three books that I want to get to in the next few days. You may hear more about them when I do.

    The first to arrive is Mark Levine’s The Fine Print of Self Publishing. Levine is the President of a division of the Hillcrest Publishing Group, Inc. He has researched self publishing options offered by 45 companies. The book’s goal is to help writers choose ethical self-publishing companies and avoid book publishing companies that are nothing more than dream-crushing scam artists.

    Tim Bete, Director, Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop said of Levine’s book, "It would take years for an author to compile all the research that Mark Levine has and, even then, most authors wouldn't be able to analyze the self-publishing companies and their contracts the way Levine does. The Fine Print of Self-Publishing will save time and money with your next self-publishing project."

    I am sure this will be a valuable tool to help us in advising clients. I’m sure you see some of that advice here in future posts.
    Click here  for more on The Fine Print of Self Publishing

    Next, I ran across Piers Steel’s, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done at my local public library. After my most recent post, Write a Family History in 28 Days? Maybe!, not to mention my ever lengthening to-do list, and the diet and visits to the gym that I really will start tomorrow, I had to see what Steel, a professor at the University of Calgary, Steel is one of the world’s leading researchers and speakers on the science of motivation and procrastination, has to say.

    Library Journal promises, “Why you ‘put off till tomorrow what you can do today’ forms the crux of Steel’s book, in which he not only answers that question but details specific techniques to reign in the impulse. . . . Offers good advice.”  

    Let’s hope!

    Click Here  for more on The Procrastination Equation

    Finally, we’re always looking for examples of memoirs, biographies and family histories that use stories to bring their subjects to life. On a recent visit to the Redding Barnes & Noble (No, we’re not related. Too bad!) we ran across Stacy Schiff’s, Cleopatra - A Life

    Schiff is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, Vera.

    Margaret Flanagan, Booklist says of the book, “Demonstrating the same narrative flair that captivated readers of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) (1999), provides a new interpretation of the life of one of history’s most enduringly intriguing women.”

    It looks like exactly the kind of creative approach to using literary techniques we like to recommend to memoirists and family historians. Look for a review soon.

    Click here for more on Cleopatra.

    What are you reading? Post a comment.



    Write a Family History in 28 Days? Maybe!

    Lynn Palermo at the Armchair Genealogist recently issued a challenge on her blog. The challenge - Write Your Family History in 28 Days. Palermo asks her readers to commit to producing a family history in the month of February.

    Is it doable? Maybe. Maybe not. A lot depends on you and how ready you are to begin writing and how much of an organizational plan for a book you already have. In either case, I absolutely agree with Palermo’s statement that, “Too often genealogists put off writing their family history. They feel the research is never done and therefore they are never ready to start the writing.”

    If you want to get a family history book written set a completion date. Then work backward from that date to create a calendar of things you need to do to meet the deadline. Then do it.

    Beware of the trap that snares so many genealogists. Your research will never be finished. Research is a pursuit that will last a lifetime. A book is a presentation of what you know now. Don’t be afraid to write because your research isn’t finished.

    Click here to visit the Armchair Genealogist and see Palermo’s challenge.  



    Narrative Nonfiction = More Interesting Family History

    Wow! What a weekend.

    We spent Friday and Saturday at the Family History Expo in Mesa, Arizona, where we spent two days talking with enthusiastic genealogists and family historians and presenting classes about creating family history books. It was a great event. We met a lot of wonderful people.

    One of the topics often at the center of our conversations was how to use the art of the storyteller to make family history come to life. We found ourselves introducing the techniques of creative or narrative nonfiction to many people faced with a dilemma. They thought they were duty bound to stick to only documented fact, but they also wanted to make their books interesting for their readers. We tried to show them how borrowing methods from literature could help them accomplish both goals.

    So, it was a little ironic when I opened my Google Reader this morning and found a post from Richard Gilbert’s Narrative blog on exactly that subject.

    Gilbert had run across an old copy of an article, “A Brief Introduction to Narrative Nonfiction,” by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes who has written 10 books of narrative nonfiction.

    Edward Humes

    One of the things we talked about at length this weekend was how getting away from straight chronological organization could make stories more interesting. Here was Gilbert providing two examples of how Humes explained his rationale for doing just that.

    Here they are:

    I hated the fact that Bill Leasure, the corrupt LAPD traffic cop in my second book, Murderer with a Badge, chose murder as his first crime. Only later did he segue into stealing a few million dollars worth of yachts. Chronicling events in that order would have been anticlimactic. So I abandoned any pretense of a chronological structure, and started the first chapter with Leasure aboard a stolen boat. The murders unfolded later in the book, in a section that dealt with an earlier period in Leasure’s life. Then the narrative jumped forward again to a time after the yacht thefts, when those unsolved murders were finally linked to Leasure by the police. That kept the tension in the narrative building, though structurally it was kind of messy—like my main character’s life.

    Finding the right structure for No Matter How Loud I Shout, my juvenile court book, was even more challenging, as I was weaving together an ensemble of characters with different story lines that only occasionally intersected—a kind of literary version of Hillstreet Blues or ER. Yet these varied threads had to build toward some sort of critical mass and shared climax in order to make sense. Finding those intersection points was not a matter of clever writing. It was a matter of being there, day after day, haunting the courtrooms, the juvenile hall, the offices of the prosecutors and public defenders and judges. In the end, I have found, even the most thorny sorts of questions about structure and character development end up being less about writing technique, and more about reporting technique. Narrative nonfiction requires authors to immerse themselves in their subjects, to painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) interview characters, research place (past, present and future), and reconstruct dialogue (spoken and interior).

    That final sentence is great advice to family historians seeking to create more interesting books.

    Click here to read Richard Gilbert's post on Narrative.



    A Great New Site For History Fans

    The History Department at the University of Texas at Austin has just launched a website “For history buffs who want reading recommendations and short, interesting, digestible stories every day, the website offers a meaningful, dynamic, and ongoing conversation about history in the form of text, audio, and video histories on subjects that span the globe. The site is designed for anyone who is interested in history, from an avid reader of history to a history film aficionado.”

    The site offers six sections. Here’s a preview of the initial offering in each section

    • Main Feature – This section will focus on a recent book by a member of the University’s History Faculty. This month’s book is Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War by MacArthur Fellowship and Bancroft Prize winning Professor Jacqueline Jones. The site offers a summary of the book, a video interview of the author and a video of the author reading from her book.

    • Read - This section presents brief reviews of books: in the initial post Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975); Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England 1780-1860 (1998) and Frederick Douglass, Narrative of his experience as a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  It also includes a book talk by Professor George Forgie (from whom I took a seminar during my summer as a William Robertson Coe Fellow in American history at Stanford many years ago)  on seven Civil War related titles.
    • Watch – This section features reviews of films dealing with Chinatown, San Francisco in the 1970s and The Old Man and the New Man in Revolutionary Cuba. All films can be purchased and downloaded from the site.
    • Discover – Presents images of Navajo rugs from the University’s Art and Art History Collection and illustrated texts created in a 12th Century German monastery.
    • Listen – Presents an oral history interview “Voices of India’s Partition” with Zehra Haider whose Muslim family left India for Pakistan when the countries were partitioned in 1947. A second audio, “LBJ and Vietnam: A Conversation” between the President and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy is also available.
    • Texas – This section includes articles on Texas’ current budget crisis, Texas Jewish cemeteries and “Mexicans in Texas During World War II.”

    It looks like an interesting site doing everything it can to use multimedia tools to bring history to life. Not Even Past will be a welcome companion to the University of Houston’s Digital History site.  

    Click here to visit Not Even History.



    Lessons for Family Historians from Paul Theroux’s "The Trouble With Autobiography"

    In 2500 rather turgid words on, American travel writer (The Great Railway Bazaar) and novelist (Mosquito Coast) Paul Theroux tells us The Trouble With Autobiography.

    He begins with a short account of his own family history, a terse, factual summary of several generations. He then states, “And these 500-odd words are all I will ever write of my autobiography.”

    I am sure Theroux didn’t mean for his brief sketch of his family history to be interesting. He was making a point about why he wouldn’t write one of any greater length.

    Theroux’s foray through the genre isn’t all that interesting on its own terms, but it does offer a couple of unintended lessons for family historians. Unfortunately, many drafts produced by novice family history writers resemble Theroux’s abbreviated account. They reduce people’s lives to lists of facts, rather than capturing the stories behind the facts.

    Let’s examine a paragraph from Theroux’s summary:

    My maternal grandparents, Alessandro and Angelina Dittami, were relative newcomers to America, having emigrated separately from Italy around 1900. An Italian might recognize Dittami (“Tell me”) as an orphan’s name. Though he abominated any mention of it, my grandfather was a foundling in Ferrara. As a young man, he got to know who his parents were—a well-known senator and his housemaid. After a turbulent upbringing in foster homes, and an operatic incident (he threatened to kill the senator), Alessandro fled to America and met and married my grandmother in New York City. They moved to Medford with the immigrant urgency and competitiveness to make a life at any cost. They succeeded, becoming prosperous, and piety mingled with smugness made the whole family insufferably sententious.

    Just look at the untold stories! His grandfather’s “turbulent upbringing in foster homes’; the “operatic incident’; his grandparents’ meeting in New York City; and, the story of how they made a life. To bring these people to life, a family historian would have to tell these stories. It is the stories that will draw readers into a family history.

    Interviews with living relatives and close examinations of family documents provide windows into the family lore that provide the researcher with the stuff of stories. Yet there’s another lesson to be learned from those stories in Theroux’s piece. It’s good to conduct your interviews and research with a degree of skepticism.

    Why? Theroux quotes Rebecca West, the English journalist and literary critic, who said, “Everyone realizes that one can believe little of what people say about each other. But it is not so widely realized that even less can one trust what people say about themselves.”

    A family historian seeking the truth about her ancestors may need to look carefully into the margins of what they wrote and said about each other and about themselves.

    Click here to read Paul Theroux’s The Trouble With Autobiography




    Every Document You Ever Needed On Your PC? Maybe!

    Here in the age of the Google search it sometimes seems as if any information anywhere is available instantly after entering a few search terms and a mouse click or two. And for the most part it is. That is unless what you want is a document in an archive or a special collection somewhere. There is no database for those documents. If you’ve ever done archival research you know that first you have to locate the library, historical society or archive where the information you are looking for might be located.  Then you have to travel to the archive. When you get there you will be presented with boxes or folders of documents which are sometimes handwritten and illegible. Organization is of the most general sort only, often all documents for a particular period of time, some important most irrelevant to what you are seeking. It often feels like looking for a needle in a haystack.

    The reason the process is so difficult is that scholars and archivists have been unable to transcribe and publish the huge volume of documents history has left us. That may be about to change.

    Scholars tasked with transcribing troves of historical documents have decided to seek help through crowd sourcing.

    University College London has been transcribing the papers of Enlightenment Philosopher Jeremy Bentham for 50 years and have completed less than have of the documents in its possession. The New York Times reports that, “Starting this fall, the editors have leveraged, if not the wisdom of the crowd, then at least its fingers, inviting anyone — yes, that means you — to help transcribe some of the 40,000 unpublished manuscripts from University College’s collection that have been scanned and put online.”

    The work of volunteers will be corrected by editors and eventually published.

    Sharon Leon of George Mason University is working on a project to publish 55,000 War Department documents destroyed when the British burned the capitol during the War of 1812. To further the project she has received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to create a digital tool that any library or archive could make available to enlist public assistance in transcribing documents.

    Max J. Evans, the former executive director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission applauds the effort. “This way, at least, the papers of the founding fathers and others, despite being tough to read and unsearchable, would not be ‘held up in these scholarly editing offices for years and years, and not only available to a select group of scholars,’” he told the Times.

    The road to crowd sourced document transcription will not be without bumps. Daniel Stowell, the director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln tried hiring non-academic transcribers and discontinued the practice because “we were spending more time and money correcting them as creating them from scratch.”

    “We’re not looking for perfect,” Ms. Leon of George Mason said of crowd-sourced transcription. “We’re looking for progressive improvement, which is a completely different goal from someone who is creating a letter-press edition.”

    While I won’t hold my breath waiting for every document I may ever need to examine to be available on my office computer, there may come a day when it does take only a Google search to locate virtually anything a researcher might need.

    As a researcher who has spent many hours digging through boxes of miscellaneous paper I can only say I hope it’s soon.

    Click here to read the New York Times article “Scholars Recruit Public for Project.”



    Triggering Stories - Tools for Collecting Family History

    January is the most popular month for family history research reported Shelly Talalay Dardashti on the My Heritage Genealogy Blog.

    I’ll bet that one of the big reasons is the holiday family gatherings that so many people attend. They sit around the living room or the dinner table and sooner or later begin to tell family stories. They recall the one about Grandma Bertha’s adventures in the 1893 land rush to homestead the former Indian Territory. Someone else remembers the story of how Grandma Cecil and Grandpa Merritt moved to San Francisco after they came west from South Dakota to start a hog ranch in Roseville up near Sacramento only to get wiped out by hog cholera. Someone from another branch of the family tells the one about always eating venison because Uncle Tommy got hired by the State of New Jersey as a hunter to kill deer to thin the herds.

    Those conversations stimulate everyone’s desire to make sure their family stories are preserved. So January is a big month for research.

    The problem is that when your new enthusiasm for recording the family history leads you to call or visit Great Aunt Tillie the convivial stimulus of a holiday glass of hot mulled wine or a slice of pumpkin pie has also become a memory. You ask Tillie to tell you what she remembers and she’s like Ronald Reagan after the Iran-Contra scandal. All she says is, “I just don’t recall.”

    It’s frustrating. It’s an experience that every family history researcher has had.

    So what can you do to help Aunt Tillie remember?

    The key to a successful interview is preparation. Begin by creating a Memory List. Brainstorm your own family memories and list anything you can remember about people, places, actions, or ancestors. Anything you recall is important to include, even if it is only a fragment of a memory. Once you have your list go back through the items and add a memory prompt or cue for each item on the list. The prompt should be short – three to six words. Here are some examples:

    • Aunt Ceil – had five husbands
    • Grandpa – lost print shop in Great Depression
    • Great Uncle Louie – a boxer as a young man
    • Grandma – a beautiful rose garden
    • Cousin Eddie – died in Flu Epidemic in 1918

    Each prompt is designed to trigger some memory or recollection about the ancestor.

    When you get together with Aunt Tillie, whether in person or by telephone, use the memory triggers on your list to help her get started talking. Not every prompt will necessarily lead to a story, but many will. Once she starts talking, interrupt as little as you can. She may take off in a completely different direction than you expected and you’ll hear stories you didn’t anticipate and knew nothing about. Let her talk. When the conversation runs down you can ask for clarification or additional details.

    A second thing to remember is to keep the conversations relatively short. Older people get tired. You’ll learn more while Aunt Tillie is energetic. Two short conversations will often net more good family stories than one long one. You may also find that when you return for the second conversation she has recalled stories triggered by reflections on your earlier interview.