THE FAMILY HISTORIAN IN THE 21st CENTURY
Copyright 2010 by William Karl Thomas
Once upon a time children lived with two parents, one or more sets of grandparents, and sometimes even
great grandparents, all in one happy little home. Grandparents were built-in baby sitters and provided much of the
information children learned in the course of their childhood; details of life their parents were often too busy to
provide, the meanings of old fashioned words, and how to tie knots more complex than a simple square knot.
I remember nature walks with my grandmother and, when I posed questions about the animals and insects
observed, getting a capsulized education on Charles Darwin and The Theory of Evolution. In my adolescence, it was my
grandfather who taught me to sharpen and use a straight razor, even though I later used a safety razor, a cartridge
razor, an electric razor, and, after I grew a beard, a disposable razor. Still, Darwin and that safety razor often
answer questions and provide alternatives that continue to serve me well.
During the twentieth century, two World Wars and the growth of the transportation industry brought about
a family mobility as parents raced after better paying jobs and other lifestyle opportunities not available to the
grandparents. Children began to grow up without that added source of information, learning, and identification
grandparents previously provided.
Identity! Shakespear said, "What’s in a name. A rose by any other name SHOULD smell as sweet."
But does it really? Not to Shakespear's feuding families in Romeo And Juliet, the Montagues and the Capulets.
Today we know a little more about the value of names and identity. We know that family lineage involves
blood types, medical histories, and possible pre-disposition to various illnesses. We know that children with less
supervision and home training score lower academically and make lower incomes in general. We know that if a parent
doesn't have the time or presence of mind to acknowledge and possibly praise a child's small step by step accomplishments
as grandparents used to do, that child's incentive to achieve is diminished, and their achievements are diminished.
We also know that children with low self esteem are prime targets for street gangs, radical groups, and substance abuse.
What can we possibly do to save our children from turning to undesirable options to find identity, to repair
the damaged infrastructure of the nuclear family? Enter our hero; the family historian. Remember that nerdy kid in the family,
the one with glasses who collected stamps and you laughed when you discovered they could actually spell 'philatelist?' Of
course, the family historian doesn't necessarily have to be a child. They can be that widowed aunt or uncle, they could even
be YOU! They (you?) can save your child, and your child’s siblings, and their cousins, and all the subsequent generations of
the family, because they can give them identity. They can reconnect them with their grandparents, their great grandparents,
and even with some of the legacy of information those grandparents would have bestowed on your children in an earlier time.
And they can do it today with the help of sophisticated genealogy computer programs to help compile and publish a Family History.
Selecting a family member to become a family historian is the first step and requires a few recruiting skills.
You might start by getting them to read this article so they understand the goals in mind. Other lures might be the opportunity
to visit and meet other family members in gathering information, the acquisition of such tools as computers, computer programs,
audio recorders, digital cameras, and camcorders as 'tools of the trade.' And the very realistic option that this could be the
threshold to a writing, journalism, or film making career in media.
Preparing them with the knowledge and tools is the second step. Local classes in creative writing, biographical
writing, or journalism would be very helpful. A computer search for tutorials on Family History or Family Historians would be
a quick and inexpensive alternative to or help augment classes. And the investment in phone interviews, computer Skype interviews,
and even travel to meet and audio/video record location interviews would provide the source material they need.
There are a growing number of books and informational sources on how to organize and execute a family history
in book, audio CD, or video documentary form. Even some of the computer genealogy programs lend themselves to these ultimate
goals beyond just charting family trees. Here are websites for three free genealogy programs worth exploring:
One of the simplest methods for researching a family history is to design a questionnaire and do a
mailing or emailing to all family members, requesting their reply by a reasonable deadline via an enclosed SASE (self
addressed stamped envelope). The questionnaire starts with the genealogy information (full name, birth date, birth
place, spouse, children, education, profession, religion), but then goes deeper to reveal their personalities (name
your top three proudest achievements/experiences, name your worst three experiences, name your top three teachers and
why they were best, name the top three public figures you admire during your lifetime, name the top three books you
read that improved your life). If you think about it, you can design your questionnaire to include interests that may
be related to your family; are most farmers, engineers, politicians, theologians, etc.?
Of course, questionnaires and interviews with the oldest family members should include questions about
the oldest deceased members they can remember, including the dates of birth and death. That's where you might find your
most colorful characters, be they American politicians or explorers, nobility or historical figures from 'the old country,'
or notorious pirates, horse thieves, and bank robbers. A good family history is sifted from all the questionnaires and
interviews, and hopefully tells the story of a family evolution from rags to riches, slavery to freedom, piracy to private
Whether the final product is a printed booklet, audio CD, or video DVD made and labeled in small quantities
on your home computer, or a more professional bound book printed by a POD (print on demand) publisher, or professionally
duplicated and labeled audio CD or video DVD that incorporates the actual interviews and voices and images from them (there
are many new companies that do this), your family history will make a dramatic and positive difference in your children's
lives, and amaze you with what YOU discover in the process.