Family History: Personal history documentation

Family History: Personal history documentationBy Barry J. Ewell

As the individual writing the personal history, it becomes your responsibility to collect documentation that is complete, accurate and reliable, especially if you intend to incorporate the information into a book or article for distribution.

If pieces of written and oral information contradict each other, then you must go deeper to determine which is more accurate, unless contradiction is the key to the issue.

Sometimes, interviewees will recall events in the form of past conversations (“she said to me . . .”). People reconstruct dialogue not only in oral histories, but also in letters and diaries and the results can be treacherous for those wanting to publish the “truth.” When you, as the researcher and interviewer, hear such dialogue, measure the conversation with what they already know (or don’t know) about the subject and even the interviewee. Most often, you are going to need to do further research.

Sorting Fact from Hearsay
The interview is the cornerstone to writing personal histories, yet it’s an opinion, a perception that is presented as fact. As a genealogist and family historian, I understand the importance of documentation and doing the extra research to confirm and effectively tell the story.

Adding Background Information to Your Personal History
During the research and writing of your personal history you will have the opportunity to expand and provide background to help make the history richer and inviting. Depending on your needs, consider the following:

  • Take advantage of your public library and libraries in the areas where your ancestors lived. Many libraries have extensive genealogical departments with staff knowledgeable about the history and people of the region or state.
  • Join genealogical societies and historical associations in the locales you are researching. Even if you live too far away to participate in local meetings, you can access valuable records and dedicated genealogists who are familiar with the history of the region.
  • Use online resources—archives of source documents, places to search for ancestral information, discussion forums to share with other researchers, and blogs that offer advice, links to other resources, and opportunities to make contacts.
  • Be as eager to share information as you are to obtain it. You may have a piece of information that fills a gap for some¬one else, and the more gaps that are filled in genealogical records, the more information is available to everyone.
  • Gather enough information to work with before you start writing, but expect to continue to research throughout the writing process.