Imagine unearthing a very old, dusty puzzle. Without its original box, the contents of the puzzle remain a mystery. After hours of work, you discover that several key pieces are missing. Sadly, the final image is lacking, with telling details lost forever.
You need the help of a personal historian.
Family histories resemble an incomplete puzzle. With each passing day, memories fade, anecdotes disappear, and secret family recipes retire.
The lofty goal of the personal historian is to immortalize the past by documenting the “who, what, where, when and why” of yesterday. Through books, audiotapes, CD-ROM, and other technologies, they race against time to record elusive memories.
“Stories can disappear within one or two generations,” says personal historian Kitty Axelson-Berry.
“People are realizing that they need to access the wisdom of future generations, the wisdom that is present in the subtly nuanced [enhanced] stories of their ancestors.”
Do You Have What it Takes?
Initially, the personal historian must lay the groundwork by thoroughly interviewing the client. Knowing the basics is essential, but personal historians must delve deeper.
Vera Rosenbluth credits her excellent interviewing skills to a professional background as a broadcaster.
The successful interviewer must also be sensitive to the client’s needs, says Axelson-Berry.
“I try to tweak memories through photos and conversations, but I have to be sensitive to avoid treading on dangerous emotional ground. Otherwise, I may leave the client feeling unhappy.”
With many personal memoir and family history books falling into the 30- to 60-page range, organizing massive amounts of information into a cohesive unit can be a challenge.
Axelson-Berry’s background as a newspaper editor for an alternative news weekly allows her to present family histories that are both entertaining and accurate.
“It’s very helpful to have been some type of historian,” says Axelson-Berry. “Whether that be a therapist, a videographer, a religious leader or a teacher.”
Rosenbluth adds that “good listening skills, with warmth, and a genuine interest in people” are some of the essential characteristics that define the successful historian.
“It’s much more than knowing how to operate a video camera or tape recorder.”
There may be a multitude of rewards in documenting the biographies of descendants, but a good income isn’t one of them.
“It is not a living wage,” says Rosenbluth. “It’s hard to charge for all the time you put into it or for what the service is really worth.”
Axelson-Berry claims that just one interview can stretch to 20 hours. And when you add in the cost of hiring talented and reliable subcontractors — such as printers, videographers and photographers — making money can be quite a challenge.
Earnings per project vary widely. Most jobs require limited edition printings of less than 200 copies.
For a 24-page book with two hard-bound copies, the cost is roughly $1,800 with an additional cost of approximately $100 per extra book ordered. This translates to a $6,000 charge for the “average” family history.
If one deducts the fees owed to a variety of subcontractors, earnings take a nosedive.
And it can be difficult to get clients. “This project requires people to go back into old memories which can be painful. They think they’ll do it tomorrow,” says Axelson-Berry.
Additional sources of income become a requirement for survival. Axelson-Berry teaches classes on bereavement books. She also founded the Association of Personal Historians, which offers seminars and conferences to industry members.
Rosenbluth offers her own set of workshops — she not only teaches techniques for obtaining personal memoirs, but she also trains volunteers to document the family histories of senior citizens and terminally ill patients.
Epilogue for the Personal Historian
“This profession is incredibly enriching,” says Rosenbluth. “You learn a lot from the way people have lived their lives.”
Axelson-Berry predicts that the day will come when everyone has a family history that is translated into tangible form, whether that be a book, CD-ROM or tomorrow’s new technology. “Recording one’s personal memoirs and family histories is going to be more important than remodeling your kitchen.”
For more information, check out:
Association of Personal Historians
Dedicated to helping others preserve their personal histories and life stories
Publishes family histories