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:

http://www.legacyfamilytree.com/downloadlegacy.asp
http://www.myheritage.com/family-tree-builder
http://portableapps.com/apps/education/gramps_portable

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 enterprise.

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.

THE END


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