Tributes & Video Biographies
Sharing Life Stories, Connecting Generations, Preserving Legacies

Who Do You Know You Are? Exploring Your Family & Personal History


Flickr photo: Roots

America is riveted right now by NBC’s hit show “Who Do You Think You Are?” which, in partnership with Ancestry.com, shares the genealogical history of well known entertainment personalities Spike Lee, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, Lisa Kudrow (who is also the Executive Producer), Sarah Jessica Parker & husband Matthew Broderick as well as Emmitt Smith. It airs on Fridays at 8/7 PM. You can find more information about the show including the schedule and full episodes at NBC’s website.

Genealogy is hot right now. The ease of online databases such as Ancestry.com, World Vital Records and Ellis Island, among others, allows the armchair genealogist to quickly and inexpensively find records such as census, birth and death certificates, immigration manifests and other important tracks in the lives of their ancestors. Over at Geneabloggers.com you can find a variety of blogs and resources dedicated to helping you explore your family tree.

There’s no knowing how difficult the trail will be until you start. You can do it all yourself and if you choose that path, you should be prepared to dedicate many months if not years to putting your family puzzle together. You can get assistance from genealogical libraries. Here in Houston we have the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research which hosts a variety of classes to better help you utilize the library as well as providing individual support during your search. The Houston Chronicle has done several articles about locals who have successfully used the Clayton Library to locate information on their families. Most recently this article appeared on March 7, 2010.

If time is a consideration and money is not, you can hire a genealogist to help you in your search. Like most experts, genealogists can specialize in different geographical areas or different time periods so it’s always a good idea to find out what their specialties might be should you go that route. Ancestry.com as well as ProGenealogists and Genealogy Wise are some good places to begin your search for a professional genealogist.

Now the real point of this blog post is to differentiate the difference between a family history and a personal history. There are so many names that get thrown about and used synonymously. To me, a family history outlines the family structure (also referred to as a family tree or pedigree) and diagrams relationships within the family.

When you watch the show “Who Do You Think You Are,” each subject is presented with the results of extensive genealogical searches which provide information about who their descendants were and details about them such as where they lived, what their occupation was, and if they were lucky, other important details about their lives. In Sarah Jessica Parker’s story that aired this past Friday March 5th, she learned that on her mother’s side, one of her descendants was one of the last women tried during the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. She was accused and then later the charges were dropped and in effect, her case ended the persecution of women for witchcraft. These details were found in letters and other documents and provide a glimpse into her ancestor’s life that speaks volumes more than a birth/death certificate or census report. She now has some key pieces to her family history.

A personal history, also referred to as an oral history or biography, is a retelling of events based on the subject’s personal experiences and opinions. It can also be the interpretation of historical events based on their eye-witness experience as well as family anecdotes, rumors and other stories passed down over the years. These personal histories are most typically presented in book form, oral recording or video, although websites, photo albums with comments, scrapbooks and family cookbooks are other vehicles for recording personal histories. The quality of books can range from a collection of photos and notes xeroxed at the local copy shop to professionally hard-bound books with photo dust jackets. Videos and audio can run from unedited tapes to polished presentations incorporating photographs, vintage film clips, archival footage and other mementos to support the storyline.

Just as in the case of researching your genealogy, personal history can be done by yourself or by hiring a professional such as myself (Legacy Multimedia). A great resource for locating a personal historian is through the Association of Personal Historians (of which I am a member.) There too, you will find a wide variety of specialties and mediums.

While piecing together your family history seems to get easier with the passing of time due to the developments of online databases and other large genealogical collection projects such as the Church of the Latter Day Saints Library, creating your personal history is something that you can’t really afford to put off. Life happens and not a day goes by where I don’t meet someone that says, “I wish I met you 6 months ago before my mother passed away.” After these people are gone from our lives, these stories become anecdotal, and like the childrens’ game Telephone, details continue to get lost in each retelling of the stories.

Stefani Twyford is a personal historian sharing life stories, connecting generations and preserving legacies. To learn more, visit her web site, find her on Twitter as @stefanitwyford, visit the Legacy Multimedia Facebook Fan Page, or send her an e-mail.

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