This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime Time senior living section.
To misquote Tolstoy, every family is the same — each one has a great story to tell in its own way. Often that story is hidden, crammed into brittle albums of fading prints, stuffed into file cabinets of moldy documents, and wedged into shoeboxes full of mementos. Framed portraits gather dust in the attic, and reels of home movies warp in their cases.
Many baby boomers find themselves overwhelmed with housefuls of memorabilia, both their aging parents’ and their own. It’s easy to see how a family’s legacy can become a mystery, even with the clues right under their noses.
Fortunately, an army of modern-day Nancy Drews has emerged to take on the task of collecting and preserving family histories. It has become a booming industry with hundreds of individuals for hire, specializing in various aspects of this work all over the world. They range from writers to photo organizers to book publishers to preservationists. These professionals can help families connect the dots of their history and create something cohesive that can be handed down through generations.
“The Association of Personal Historians is a good place to start because our members do a wide variety of things, from photo books to videography to family history cookbooks,” says Executive Director Linda Coffin.
Most people who work in the personal history business charge by the hour or by the project, so you can tailor the job to your budget, Coffin says.
Creating your personal and/or family history is not a vanity project. It is well worth the time and effort on many levels, experts say.
“This work gives the narrator and the audience a sense of heritage and a sense of place in the world,” Coffin says. “There are all kinds of studies of the importance of reminiscence and life review. It clarifies things that they never really resolved or thought through in their life.”
Organize the memories
“We humans are storytellers. This is how we share our values and our traditions,” says Cathi Nelson, founder of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers. “Our photos are the keepsakes of those memories. They capture the identity of a family.”
The AAPO specializes in collecting, sorting, scanning and presenting personal photos (paper and digital) to tell a story. Its members can help get you started, or take over the entire project for you.
Professional photo organizers can also provide tips to help you through the painful process of weeding out. Nelson recommends saving photos based around themes, such as holidays, rather than sticking to a strict chronology. For example, you don’t need a photo of the same Christmas tree from 1968, 1969, 1970 and so on.
“If you just send your box of photos away to have it digitized, you’re getting back the same mess you had,” Nelson cautions.
Digital photos need to be tagged with metadata so they can be easily searched. Otherwise, they become a bunch of useless numbered files. Photos don’t have to be ripped from albums, either. Entire pages can be scanned and made into paper or digital books.
Now’s the time
Retirement is a perfect time to reflect and reconcile. Many baby boomers are choosing to write their autobiographies and are urging aging relatives to do so, says Betsy Storm, owner of The Story of You, a personal history writing service.
As a professional full-time writer for 35 years who has interviewed numerous celebrities about their lives, Storm now helps clients write their life stories. She works as an interviewer, editor, ghostwriter and publisher, depending on the person’s needs.
“A husband and wife might want to chronicle their marriage in preparation for a major anniversary or birthday. Some might want to do a self-published book about their travels or their career. People also use this as a cathartic process,” she says.
Storm emphasizes the importance of capturing the stories of elderly relatives before it’s too late. It’s these stories that keep a person alive for future generations, she says. “I want my grandchildren to know what life was like for me growing up.”
Coffin agrees that recording the stories of older relatives is crucial to add meaning to all that stuff in the attic. She recommends buying an inexpensive digital recorder and asking them questions about photos, objects, places, and events. Then transferring the recordings onto your computer.
All three women emphasize that it’s not how much you save, but that what you save has meaning for future generations that they can understand. When you sync the stories with the photos and objects, it takes the mystery out of all that history.