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20 Reasons Why You Should Write Your Family History

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Family History
Hungarian Family at Ellis Island, all of whom were deported. 1905. Image ID: 417071

If you have done any family history research, such as looking for records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org or conducting interviews with older family members, you may have pondered writing about your genealogy research. Here are 20 reasons why you should cease pondering and start writing:

You’ll feel wiser.

In 2014, ⅓ online adults used the Internet to learn more about their family history.
67% said that knowing their family history has made them feel wiser as a person.
72% said it helped them be closer to older relatives.
52% said they discovered ancestors they had not known about.
Ancestry.com, Global Study of Users, 2014

First person narratives and family histories are important historical documents.

“You are doing a service by leaving a legacy, no matter how small or large.”
“The interesting stories in your life have become familiar to you… The novelty of these stories is most apparent to someone hearing them for the first time.”
The Story of You: A Guide for Writing Your Personal Stories and Family History, John Bond, 2014

You are an important person. You have things to pass on, to your children, to your local history society, to unknown future generations.

“The entire story of mankind has come to us from individual voices from the past.”
Family Focused: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Your Autobiography and Family History, Janice T. Dixon, 1997

You and your family are important to somebody, probably many somebodies.

“Just watch... ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to see how many ways one life touches so many others. The few families on the Mayflower probably produced more than 20 million descendants.”
The Story of You: A Guide for Writing Your Personal Stories and Family History, John Bond, 2014

Family trees are abstract. Stories add depth.

“It makes names into real, live people. Family stories help you and your family become more than a birth and a death date.”
The Story of You: A Guide for Writing Your Personal Stories and Family History, John Bond, 2014

Jeter Family
The Jeter Family in 1901. Image ID: 1235217

Memories over time become fragmented and distorted. People may not remember the things you told them but did not write down.

“I am not famous or rich, but I still want to be remembered.”
Family Focused: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Your Autobiography and Family History, Janice T. Dixon, 1997

Writing your family history gives you the chance to depict your ancestors how you see fit.

“You cannot write our story. You have no right.”
In 2004, Native Americans react to depictions of their ancestors in documents about Lewis & Clark.
History News, Summer 2014

There is a need for diverse family histories about those who have not been represented well in history texts.

“For members of marginalized groups, speaking personally and truthfully about our lives plays a small part in erasing years of invisibility and interpretation by others.”
Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Judith Barrington, 1997

There is a need for more family histories documenting female lines.

“The traditional descendants-of genealogy usually begins with the immigrant and follows descendants for some number of generations. Often they have a paternalistic bent and follow only male descendants who bore the surname….In the future we hope to see less short-changing of maternal lines and collateral lines in published material.”
Producing a Quality Family History, Patricia Law Hatcher, 1996

There is a need for more family histories about families who are not affluent.

“Genealogical publishing [in the past] was accessible primarily to the affluent…. Modern genealogists are researching ancestors who are relatively recent immigrants, landless, illiterate, living on the frontier or migrating. There seems to be a trend away from idealizing our ancestors.”
Producing a Quality Family History, Patricia Law Hatcher, 1996

Painute
Paiute Family in Yosemite, circa 1900. Image ID: 1690994

Family histories humanize the people you know or knew and remember for those who did not know them.

“The generations slipped away as I shared her grief for a moment. In reading her words I felt closer to my grandmother than I ever have.”
Family Focused: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Your Autobiography and Family History, Janice T. Dixon, 1997

Information raises questions. Genealogy research has brought new facts into your life.

“They research and write down when and where mom and dad were married. I don’t want to say accurate facts aren’t important, but I do question priorities here. The facts, or at least the important facts, of mom and dad’s marriage were not where and when it took place but what they made of it.”
For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History, Charley Kempthorne, 1996

It may help you understand your current family dynamics.

“I spent a year writing my story which is also my mother’s story and the story of our family. It was a most enlightening time for me, one I treasure, because it forced me to look at my life, re-shape it in many ways, and to laugh at things that I had taken so seriously before. I matured in many ways and became more tolerant and caring. It also freed me from some of my doubts and fears.”
Family Focused: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Your Autobiography and Family History, Janice T. Dixon, 1997

It will help you build or solidify a sense of family.

“I suggest that family history is more important than any other history simply because family is the fundamental, rock-bottom unit of society.”
For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History, Charley Kempthorne, 1996

Writing is reflective. Writing is investing in yourself.

“In writing your personal history, you put perspective and purpose in your life. You begin to understand yourself better than you ever have.”
Family Focused: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Your Autobiography and Family History, Janice T. Dixon, 1997

Cowboy writing
Cowboy writing in a notebook, 1909. Image ID: 5027900

It can be therapeutic.

“Studies show that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory…. Writing -- and then rewriting -- your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.”
New York Times, "Writing Your Way To Happiness," Tara Parker-Pope, January 19, 2015

Don’t take for granted that the lives of your ancestors are lost. Evidence of the people they have been exists somewhere and is discoverable.

“Virtually all my finds have been made from old manuscripts in public repositories and have been of the family moving, not in the company of celebrities…, but among people as little known to fame as themselves.”
How to Write a Family History: The Lives and Times of Our Ancestors, Terrick FitzHugh, 1988

“It will have a wider impact than you might imagine.”

After publishing some of her family histories and donating to libraries and archives, author Penny Stratton heard from other researchers that they had found leads and data in her writings.
American Ancestors, Spring 2014

Family members and even distant cousins may become more forward in contributing documents, photos, and stories for your genealogical research.

“It’s cousin-bait.”
Genea-Musings, “Why Do You Write About Your Personal Research?” Randy Seaver, January 2015

You will be encouraged to archive and preserve the documents on which your family history research is based: certificates, letters, diaries, etc.

“These documents function within the family in the same way that important documents of our common history function within the nation.”
For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History, Charley Kempthorne, 1996

Writing Your Family History is a class offered by the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy. Please check our website for upcoming dates. If you have a family history that you would like to donate to libraries, consider the New York Public Library (details on our FAQ) and the Library of Congress.

Comments

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Thank you Ms Nigro! With your blog post you've said what APH's personal historians around the world are always saying to their clients: that their stories have value and need to be told. Inspired by your post, APH is launching a 20-by-20 blog series tomorrow - an introductory post is up on our blog today : http://bit.ly/20ReasonsAPH and the first item on your list, "You'll feel wiser" will be explored by one of our senior personal historians, Susan T Hessel. Blog posts are scheduled for each Thursday afterwards. We have enough content to take us through July! ;) .... and more ... we'll be including some "bonus features" including a text by one of the authors you cited in this piece, APH member Charley Kempthorne. 20 APH members / personal historians will take each of the points raised in your post and expand upon them in this weekly series. It's a chance to delve deeper into each of the important reasons to write a family or personal history. Thank you again for taking the time to look into this important and passionate subject. Michelle Sullivan APH Online Director and board member

Thank you so much!

I've been researching my family for the past six months and have learned a great deal - including that certain stories told to me by my parents couldn't possibly have been true. I've also learned exactly where in Europe my family originated. I plan to continue the search there. I've got information dating back to the early 1600s and I want to preserve it for my children and my soon-to-be grandchild. Thank you for inspiring me to write it all down!

Writing Family Histories

I moved to Buffalo, NY with my parents and siblings from Canada in 1967. Can you suggest resources for me to research my Canadian ancestors? My maternal grandmother came to Canada in 1904 from England. My maternal great grandparents lived in Perth, ON in 1880. My Irish-born paternal great, great-grandfather was already in Canada by 1800. Thank you for any suggestions.

Hi, please feel free to email

Hi, please feel free to email us: history@nypl.org and we can help you with your genealogy research.

missing relatives

Hi, I was born and raised in New York. I'm interested in learning how NYPL can help me find out more about my families. My mother's family came from Poland; I don't know anything about their families. My father's mother died in Kiev around 1941; I don't know what happened to her or her adult daughter, nor anything about her family. How would I begin? Most of my relatives are no longer living. Thanks! Stephanie Hiller Sonoma, CA

Canadian family history search

Maureen, I've got a page of links to Canadian family history resources on my blog as some of my ancestors came through Canada, too (albeit earlier than yours). Some of the links are nationwide resources, others are more specific to New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario (and their predecessors) - there's also a bit on Manitoba. Have a look at https://.jahcmft.blogspot.com (Climbing My Family Tree) - no "www". There's a tab for Resources - Canada in gold letters that will take you to my list of links to good places to look for info on Canadian ancestors. Have fun!

The Lanark Log newsletter of Lanark County Genealogical Society

www.globalgenealogy.com/LCGS Membership is $20.00 (Can) I have a membership but do not get to meetings but I still have an interest .Address for inquires The Lanark Log Box 512 , Perth , Ontario K7H 3K4 , Canada Perth is celebrating it's 200 Anniversary 2016 Typing 2016.lanarkcounty tourism.ca will lead to several links .We live five miles west of Perth . We have been here only 40 years Special books are being written .At Home in Tay Valley and calendar 200th Anniversary Perth Military Settlement David and Elaine Morrow RR4 Perth Ontario K7H 3C6
Thank you Ms. Nigro! I know I'm singing to the choir but I want to share that I am a member of APH and a personal historian because my family lost the stories of my paternal great-grandfather, one of the first architects in Portland OR. Fortunately a contractor with whom he did a lot of work donated the construction drawings to the University of Oregon library so we have a list of the buildings he designed and people, including myself, have done a lot of work looking for them. Fortunately I took a class at Portland State where I learned how to do Oral Histories and worked with my maternal grandfather as my class project. I was hooked and have been doing personal histories ever since. Now, years later I am able to have this as my main focus in life with my business "Capturing Your Life Stories" and feel even more strongly that saving personal histories can be part of the solution in counteracting the forces isolating people such as TV, electronic games and geographic dispersement of the family.In one person's personal history five generations can be described, if not even more. With the values and reflections given in that personal history future generations of that person's family will know from where they come. This is so important.

This was awesome

I am a huge supporter of documenting our family history and have even built my entire business around that one principal. This top 20 list cites virtually every reason...and more...as to why it's so important. Excellent write-up!
Thank you for your wonderful list! I would like to suggest a 21st reason based on the legacy work we do through our international group of facilitators serving seniors, hospice patients, donors, financial/estate planning clients, and members of faith-based communities. We have found that when individuals take the time to reflect and document just 10-20 short stories about their family history, culture, life experiences, opportunities, challenges, gratitude, etc., they are able to communicate their wisdom, values and generosity to the next generation in a very positive and instructive way. Their loved ones in turn are able to “walk in their shoes” and learn from these short stories in a way that is helpful and even transformational as they continue along their own life journeys. Additionally, the writer is able to objectively view their life as lived so far and gain a greater sense of purpose or intent going forward. Furthermore, in a time when many families live far from one another and are pulled in so many directions, we are always amazed at how powerful stories can be in deepening family relationships. Our workbooks, virtual programs and facilitators have made a significant impact in helping so many people enjoy the many benefits of their stories without feeling overwhelmed by lengthy and often expensive memoir or autobiography story writing processes. Our mission is to provide everyone with the opportunity to reflect, write and share their stories for themselves, their loved ones and their communities. Our stories provide a unique and profound gift to share with our families and this treasured gift continues to keep on giving from one generation to the next!

This is wonderful! What a

This is wonderful! What a fantastic list!

Writing

What a fantastic article! Researching my family tree with Ancestry has definitely opened up my mind. I have 'met' so many new family members some which are still living and some I am in contact with on Facebook. Thanks. Ian in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England

Arkiver: A tool to gather family history

This is a fantastic list! If you're looking for a tool that can help you collect and curate family documents, pictures and videos along with adding notes and quotes, check out www.arkiver.com. It's free to create an account and everything is stored safely in your Dropbox. you'll also be able to share your research privately with other family members.

Power in the Blood

I did just this. . . . wrote a family history . . . in my award-winning book, "Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative (Ohio University Press, 2009). Check it out!

Canadian genealogy and family history

Thank you for posting this great list of writing resources. I'm going to be recommending this to my genealogy students. For those looking for Canadian resources, I have a list of essential websites and books on my blog - almost all are free. These will get you started.

shout out from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City

Thank you sooooo much for this article. Every day I see people struggle to discover their ancestors. If even one member of a family would write down their stories it would open up countless possibilities for many generations. If you don't remember your grandparents stories than you can be sure that your grandchildren won't remember yours if you don't write them down. Everyone needs and deserves to be remembered!

Writing your family history

Ms. Nigro, thank you for such an encouraging and thoughtful posting. You put forth the very real and compelling reasons each of us has a contribution to make. My Uncle and I began the history of our family 18 months ago. As we continue with the process we realize we are also providing history about our own lives growing-up Italian-American in Brooklyn during the 1940s through the 1970s. This is a period of local history that is gone since demographics have changed. We're blogging our discoveries. How can I make plans to pass on the written materials once I'm no longer here. Will local historical societies maintain our photo albums and manuscripts including documentation? What is a good organization to leave the material to?

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