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Kimberly Powell

Making a Living as a Personal Historian

By October 19, 2008

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An article in last week's New York Times discusses the growing trend of entrepreneurs who make a living capturing the stories and memories of older generations, such as this excerpt from the personal history of 85-year-old Sylvia Messer. Most commonly referred to as personal historians, these individuals conduct interviews and then use the collected stories and recollections to create audiotapes, CDs, videotapes or DVDs, books, or even family Web sites to publish the results.

Many personal historians move into the field after retiring from their long-time job, or because they want to add a little supplemental income. The majority do it because they truly love the work. The best-paid can actually make up to six figures a year, especially those who produce videos or have wealthy clients, according to Sarah White, regions director for the Association of Personal Historians, in the NYT article. She also reports that the field tends to attract journalists, social workers and others involved in communications. I wonder why genealogists aren't as involved? It takes more than a passion for the topic to become a good personal historian, however. Training is often necessary in a variety of areas, from interviewing techniques to digital video editing.

How many of us have had a loved one die before we ever got around to asking them about their family and personal history? Even if you've always planned to collect those stories yourself, sometimes hiring a personal historian is a great option. Many of us are so busy raising our own families during the years that our parents and grandparents are still able to share a wealth of family stories...that we just never seem to get around to turning those good intentions into reality. Hiring a professional to capture and preserve those precious memories in such a case is an excellent option. And the resulting published stories make an excellent gift for loved ones! The Association of Personal Historians can help you locate a professional near you. You can also locate many through a simple Web search for "personal historian."

October 21, 2008 at 5:37 pm
(1) Byron carlson says:

I strongly encourage getting one’s parents stories recorded and preserved for future generations. We used the Association of Personal Historians to locate a biographer for our parents. (HeirloomBiography.com) Amazing to see a life played out in cinematic form with pictures and music. Well worth the investment!

October 21, 2008 at 10:29 pm
(2) Stefani Twyford says:

I am a personal historian in the Houston Texas area and I had a conversation today with a client whose wife passed away a few years ago. He hired us last year to create a tribute to his wife by focusing on his family life and what his courtship, marriage and child rearing days were like. He told me today that it was an amazing therapy for his family to watch this video. That initially his children couldn’t bear to watch it. After awhile, they watched it and now, they take great pleasure in showing it to other family members; watching them watching the video. The family has fully healed and can now celebrate this woman’s contribution to their lives.

We see three distinct dynamics for people doing a personal history that you can read about on my blog, http://legacymultimedia.com/blog/2008/10/07/three-dynamics/.

October 22, 2008 at 10:00 am
(3) Hella Buchheim says:

As Personal Historian I am amazed how much children learn about their parents after their stories are recorded. We never look at those people who raised us as people with a full breath of history, they are just our parents. It is a wonderful gift to let people in on all the members of their family, a snap shot that they were not aware of.

I am a member of APH and we do have members that are genealogist. But whether one works in video, print or oral histories, we try to go beyond those family charts and make those people come to life. Its the stories that disappear so quickly. It can take one generation and they are gone.

Some of us even work with cookbooks. Yes, the cookbook is a wonderful way to connect heritage, the foods we ate growing up and the stories that were told over the dining room table. http://www.platefullofmemories.com was created since I could not find the recipes of my own grandmother. It helps people connect and create a family memory cookbook with unlimited stories, photos and recipes.

We all try to connect one generation with another no matter what form we use. Genealogy is just part of the story.

October 22, 2008 at 10:20 am
(4) ~Kimberly says:


I truly appreciate your words about the importance of recording and preserving family stories. That is so true. But I do want to point out that genealogy is SO much more than just charts, names and dates. As genealogists we strive to learn about the people from whom we descend – their lives, their stories, their hopes and dreams and yes, even their recipes. Oral history is, in my opinion, the most important step in genealogy research.


October 22, 2008 at 4:10 pm
(5) Tracy Urban says:

I too am a personal historian. One of the most satisfying aspects of my work is watching the person whose story I am saving come alive.

Creating a memoir or family history can be an intense, often pleasurable experience no matter what your age and several of the people I’ve worked with have found that it gives them a renewed sense of purpose.

I think of it as the “personal history tonic”, guaranteed to put a spring in your step and a twinkle in your eye. (For more on this and the other benefits of telling your story, see my blog at http://www.storyheart.com/story-heart-blog/

October 27, 2008 at 2:15 pm
(6) Rory Siefer says:

Especially with the holidays coming closer, this can be a great time to sit down with your parents and grandparents and ask them about their life.

Five years ago at Thanksgiving I first interviewed my own grandfather about his life and the stories we saved are priceless. We were rolling on the floor laughing at time and crying at others.

There is a lot to be said about taking the time to ask! As a family biographer, I can tell you how priceless the stories that you save will become! So don’t wait – start recording the stories today. Check out my blog to find out more too! http://www.texanbiographer.com/blog/

November 24, 2008 at 10:52 pm
(7) Peter Gudmundsson says:

New models are emerging in the personal history business. Once only the domain of professionals toiling alone, companies like Priceless Legacy are seeking to recruit part-time Legacy Consultants throughout the US to help people preserve their life stories and lessons. The company takes care of the administration and product creation and relies on the field based LCs to handle the human interaction of interviewing, photo organizing and draft approvals. It is a great way for the history-curious to explore service as a personal historian without the cost and confusion of starting from scratch on one’s own.

March 18, 2009 at 1:04 pm
(8) Jane says:

We started our video biography business in Orange County and LA after the death of parents and a near-death experience of our own.

The good news is that you do not need a professional – an ordinary video camera will get you started. We do encourage people to invest in a tripod and a lapel mic. though for steady pictures and good sound.

Sadly, as much as people agree about the importance of recording their family history while the elders are still alive, day-to-day distractions prevent them acting on the impulse.

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