Like most people, Hedrick Ellis grew up listening to his parents and grand parents tell family stories. As a teenager, he often tuned them out, but this year, eager to keep those memories alive, he hired a personal historian to interview his father and mother.
“You hear these stories over the years, but nobody ever really gets around to writing them down,” says Mr. Ellis, of Arlington, Mass. “This seemed like an easy and practical way of capturing them.”
In this age of the memoir, not all fascinating lives belong to notable individuals. Across the country, people like Mr. Ellis are part of a growing cottage industry of amateurs and professionals eager to preserve the experiences of older generations. Armed with notebooks, tape recorders and video cameras, they are coaxing a lifetime of memories from beloved relatives.
“We’re seeing an increase both in the number of people who want to do personal historian work and an increase in the number of elders who want to be sure their stories are handed down,” says Paula Stahel, president of the Association of Personal Historians.
She attributes much of the interest to changing family structures. In the past, she says, “We’d see our aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins regularly. … Today’s retirees pick up and move someplace else, or their children take jobs in distant cities, so we don’t have the experience of living the stories together.”
Some families hire a professional who is skilled in asking questions and shaping responses into a cohesive narrative. Others take a do-it-yourself approach.
“It’s always a baby boomer who has children and aging parents,” says David O’Neil, a personal historian in Newton, Mass. “They look at their parents and their children and wonder, ‘What are my children going to remember about my own parents, and how do I capture and preserve their life stories?’ As the World War II generation is passing away, there are a lot of efforts to record their stories.”
Many people don’t think they have stories to tell. One reluctant husband told Mr. O’Neil, “We’ll be done in 10 minutes.” An hour and a half later, he was still talking. Some women say, “All I’ve done is raise children.”
Mr. O’Neil challenges that modesty, calling these storytellers “ordinary people with extraordinary lives.” In addition to audio and video formats, people preserve memories in books, ranging from simple bindings to customized leather editions.
Others use the Internet, answering questions online to create an “instant autobiographical book.” Prices for professional services vary widely. Four hours of audio interviews can start at $500, Mr. O’Neil says. Transcription into a book with photos can cost more than $5,000.
Some families use a team approach. Last year, Dallas resident Scott Tims and his family interviewed his 94-year-old maternal grandmother on video.
Before they began, he created an outline of topics and questions to ask. He was careful to avoid sensitive subjects. “The challenge was keeping the interview on track, not allowing my family members to get us off on a tangent or tell her stories for her,” he says. “Everyone learned interesting things about Nanny.”
Dennis Stack, founder of Project StoryKeeper (www.sto rykeeper.org), makes a case for one-on-one interviews. He hopes to train 100,000 volunteers to capture the stories of older generations.
Using outsiders as interviewers offers a new audience, whereas family members are likely to say, “I don’t need to hear that story; I already know it.”
Donna Gold of Stockton Springs, Maine, discovered family stories she had never heard when she traveled to California to record her great-aunt’s memories of pogroms in Ukraine and the family’s journey to the United States.
“It has meant everything to me - I had no history before,” Miss Gold says. “My grandparents, all immigrants, seldom talked about their lives in Eastern Europe or their families.” She also has recorded the stories of her father, her mother-in-law and clients who hire her.
“As the people I’ve interviewed age, these [interviews] become essential records of the vibrancy of their lives,” Miss Gold says. She prefers written formats: “A book can be held, browsed, cherished. A camera can get intrusive, whereas a tape recorder easily gets forgotten.”