What do you need to do to become a personal historian?

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Personal histories are life stories about both celebrities and "ordinary people." Personal historians help individuals, families, communities, and organizations gather those stories and produce them in a format they can share and preserve, whether as a printed book, a photo-history, an audio-visual presentation, an audio-history, a video tribute, a documentary, or a combination of these and other formats - such as legacy cookbooks or memory quilts. Most people don't have the time or skills to tell their own stories in a coherent, engaging way. Personal historians elicit and capture those stories and shape them into a whole that the person, group, or organization will recognize as "their" story. Among many other skills, personal historians need to be able to: • help their clients figure out what form and format is best • elicit stories, by interviewing people or coaching them and helping them write their own • manage the recording and transcription of interviews • organize and lightly edit the interviews, if doing an audio history • organize and write a narrative based on the interviews, if doing a narrative memoir or biography • organize and produce visual materials and write captions for use in books and video tributes • organize and produce video programs • develop and implement websites that meet the client's needs Some personal historians may simply be interested in gathering and preserving family stories before they are lost. Others are joining the growing field of professional personal historians, providing services to individuals, families, communities, and organizations that want history captured but do not have the time or skills to capture it themselves. If you are thinking of becoming a personal historian, here are some of the things you should do: 1. Determine your media. Do you want to produce books? Audio histories? Video biographies? Create family websites? Or do you want to specialize in a niche market such as visual art, memory quilts, or some other form? 2. Acquire the tools and skills necessary to work with that medium. Striving for mastery results in personal histories projects that are artful, entertaining, and compelling. 3. Create a sample. Many professional personal historians create a personal history with a family member and use that to show others how their story can be showcased. 4. Master interviewing. Knowing how to draw people out and capture their stories is an essential skill. The interview is the basis for every personal history, so you must either know how to conduct an interview or work with someone who does. 5. Acquire research skills. Learn how to find information about the times through which your subject lived so that your interview questions elicit engaging stories and you can enrich the narrative with social and cultural information that adds context to the stories. 6. Understand boundaries. Not everyone is a candidate for a personal history project. No one should be pressured to talk about things they prefer not to discuss, as intrusive interviewing can cause emotional harm. People who have experienced trauma in their lives can be re-traumatized if the interviewer does not have the professional experience and education to guide them through an interview about difficult memories. 7. Join professional organizations such as the Association of Personal Historians, the Oral History Association, the Biographers International Organization, etc., to improve your skills and network with like-minded professionals.
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