Preserving Your Family History

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By , Contributing Writer
November 2011

It’s not how you tell the story, but that you tell it in the first place. Many people have boxes of family photos, letters and documents in their attic or garage. One day, they promise themselves, they will put these precious mementos into a self-published book or on a DVD and archive them for their children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, life happens, and often the boxes are left unopened, gathering dust.

In 2008, Susan Farnsworth inherited 38 large plastic containers chock-full of family documents and photos. She decided to tackle the task of writing and archiving her family mementos – some dating back to the 18th century – into a beautiful bound book.

Online resources make it easier to collect and save family papers, photos and oral histories. (Photo: ##http://istockphoto.com/mashabubamashabuba##istockphoto.com/mashabubamashabuba##)

Nowadays, many resources are available to help people self-publish their family history book – if not a 400-page tome, then a video biography or an online family blog. Farnsworth opted to publish a book, using online tools at the Bookemon website.

“I thought, ‘I would teach myself how to do my own family history book,’” says Farnsworth, 62. “With new technology today, it’s something people can do. However, people get overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, but it’s just a matter of organization.”

Farnsworth spent six months, devoting about 70 hours a week, culling and organizing stacks of papers and photos. In the end, she put only a fraction of it into a six-volume family-history tome. She found the experience exhausting but rewarding, and now people hire her company, Susan’s Concierge for Seniors, to organize and write their family history.

“Really, anyone can do it; it’s just whether they want to put in the time,” Farnsworth says. “For a 50-page book, for example, I put in about 80 hours researching, writing, editing and laying out the book.”

With the help of Houston-based video biographer Stefani Twyford of Legacy Multimedia, Bellaire residents Nat and Jill Levy transformed their life story into a full-length video for their children and grandchildren. The project started as a 15-minute video for the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, where they were honored at a banquet two years ago for their volunteer work.

“So rather than long speeches, the university had a video made of my wife and myself,” says Levy, 75. “But along with the 15-minute format, we asked Stefani to put together a longer, full-length version that included longer interviews with families and friends to have as a keepsake.”

One thing that came out that few family members knew was that Nat Levy was on a legal team that defended former South African president Nelson Mandela at his infamous 1964 trial where he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

“Before watching the video, our grandchildren knew us as grandparents,” Levy says. “Afterward, they realized they were so much more … emigrating from South Africa to the United States and devoting their lives to helping others and charity works.” Some people have taken their video biography a step further, posting them online. Storytelling communities are the latest trend to emerge online. Think of them as social networks for families. Memory-sharing services, including MyFamily.com, Proust.com and StoryTree.me, allow family members to ask each other questions and reply by video, audio recording or photo.

MyFamily.com charges an annual service fee of $29.95 for the entire family, while Proust and StoryTree are free. Proust also allows users to create a “story book” that can be purchased as an e-book or physical copy. The advantage of online storytelling is that every member of the family participates. The burden isn’t just on one person to download photos or write the family history.

Whether people go online, publish a book or produce a video, the important thing is to just do it – before time runs out. “You got to capture the moments now,” says Twyford, who writes a blog with tips on making video biographies. “I hear from people all the time that they wished they had met me six months ago before their mother or father passed.”

How to Preserve Your Family History

Family History Books
Self-publishing your family history couldn’t be easier with the online services available today, said Susan Farnsworth, whose Susan’s Concierge for Seniors (www.SusansConciergeforSeniors.com) specializes in family history books. You can put together simple photo albums in minutes, or do something more involved, such as photos with text.

Blurb.com (www.blurb.com) gives people numerous choices for colors, borders, fonts and sizes. Soft-cover and hard-cover books can run to 440 pages, and cost varies depending on size and page length. The site also offers lots of helpful tips, ranging from how to put together a visual story to first-hand accounts from people who use documents, illustrations, collages and photos to create memorable, beautiful tributes. Bookemon.com (www.bookemon.com) creates professional bookstore-quality books with glossy pages and photos. To start, people upload their photo files onto the online BookBuilder (bookbuilder.cast.org), where people can add text and clip art. Books can be published and shared with friends and family members online, too.

Online Memory Sharing
The entire family can help with these online memory-sharing services, which mimic social networks such as Facebook and Google+, but with the specific goal of documenting family memories while protecting their privacy. At Proust.com (www.proust.com), families preserve and share their stories one question at a time. MyFamily (www.myfamily.com) is a social website for families where they can share stories, photos and videos. Membership for the entire family costs $29.95.

Video Biography
Making a movie about your family has gotten so much easier with digital video cameras such as Flip. The key here is to organize first, then shoot. This will make the editing process a whole lot easier. Legacy Multimedia founder Stefani Twyford recommends integrating photos, news clippings and documents with one-on-one interviews.  For more tips from Twyford, check out her blog at www.legacymultimedia.com. See below for sample questions to ask in interviews with family members.

Growing Up Years

1. Where were you born?
2. Were there any unusual circumstances regarding your birth?
3. What is the origin of your name?
4. Nicknames you had and why.
5. What do you remember about fashions and fads as you were growing up?

Family

1. What are your memories and feelings about your parents?
2. Tell us about your Christmases and other special holidays as a family.
3. Do you recall any special family traditions you would like remembered?
4. What are your memories and feelings about your parents?

Religion

1. What churches have you and your family belonged to?
2. Tell me about any faith promoting experiences you have had.
3. When were you christened or blessed and by whom?

Schooling

1. At what age did you begin your schooling?
2. Share your experiences about school dances, athletics, parties, etc.
3. Who were your best friends?
4. Did you attend college? If so, tell us about your studies and activities.
5. How did you feel about your educational experiences in general?
6. Are you happy with your accomplishments?

Courtship and Marriage

1. How and where did you meet your spouse?
2. How old were each of you when you met? Describe your appearance.
3. Tell us about some of your favorite dates.
4. What was your first impression of him/her?
5. How did your family respond to your choice for a mate?
6. Share some of your feelings on your wedding day.
7. What advice would you have for young people considering marriage?

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  • Kuhlmanrd

    I loved this story.  There is so much to learn by reading about one’s family history.  It is good to know there is a place to go to get help with the task of preserving all those mementos and family stories. 

  • Di20724

    Your story about online book publishing was very interesting.   I have recently read a very good novel by Jane Hancock called the Accidental Senator .  This book was created through an online publisher.  I had no idea this was even possible.

  • http://www.thebuzzmagazines.com The Buzz Magazines

    We’re so glad you liked the article!

  • http://www.thebuzzmagazines.com The Buzz Magazines

    Thanks for the nice feedback! We love hearing from our readers.

  • Stefani Twyford

    Great article and thanks for mentioning me and my company, Legacy Multimedia. 
    For those of you interested in a beautiful biography of a young girl’s diary, check out this terrific book, The Red Leather Diary, http://www.redleatherdiary.com/ by Lily Koppel. There is so much that can be done with very few resources and this is one of my favorites.