Thursday, November 29, 2012

Learning about history from photos & papers

I love old photos. My second cousin, who owns a shoe store in Kearney, NE., has a collection of family photos from the Beavers side of my mother’s clan on display around his store. Let me tell you, some of my ancestors had pretty interesting mustaches  and one of my sisters tells me I bear a strong resemblance to our maternal grandmother, who I think looks remarkably like HER maternal grandmother.

Too many of us don’t label our photos and now that digital photography is all the rage, we better hope Flickr and Facebook stay around forever because that’s where the bulk of our photos reside. Take some time and have your best photos printed. Then label them as to what they are so future generations know. And if you have photos of others that don’t have meaning for you any more….or you need to clean house….send them the photos rather than toss them out. You’ll be glad you did.

My father’s family for years had a family letter and if I get my act together we’ll have another one. I’ve been promising to start it up for a number of months now so perhaps this blog post will spur me to action. Each person on the family list writes a letter and sends it to the next person and on and on. When the envelope full of letters comes back to you, you remove your letter (and hopefully save it!), put a new one in and send the packet along. It’s a really interesting way to stay in touch with distant relatives and it is a bit of history that can’t be duplicated any other way.

As I said in a previous post, I keep scrapbooks. The ones about my husband’s career all have items glued in them, but for my son and myself, I’ve taken to using plastic sleeves that I can simply slide information into. Gluing takes a lot of time—I have about six year’s worth of Tom’s things to put into the latest scrap book—but the versions with plastic sleeves are easy to use AND to retrieve items from should you wish to photo copy them.

The History Center has been “gifted” with a number of scrapbooks over the years and they are wonderful additions to our collection.  Nellie Bee Maloley has been keeping scrapbooks about the Festival of Gingerbread for years and this year donated them to the museum.

Our exhibitor, Randy Elliott, and I were talking about high school yearbooks yesterday and I made the comment that for some reason many yearbooks in my hometown were thrown out over the years and thus it became necessary, when our high school alumni association decided to collect items about the history of the school district, to go hunting for yearbooks. I still have mine on the shelf beside my desk thanks in large part to folks from my past popping up on Facebook. I still look like I did in high school. Why don’t they?

Over Thanksgiving, my husband’s aunt pulled out a file of papers and photos of family members and events to pass along some information to him. I don’t know if there was rhyme nor reason to how she had these things filed, but that accordion file was a plethora of information about the past. I found out Tom’s uncle bore a striking resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio when Jim was in high school and that he’d been editor of the yearbook. Tom is researching Archbishop of Canterbury William Sancroft’s sister, from whom Tom’s family is descended, and so much of the research that Kate, Tom’s mother, had already completed and passed onto her sister was in the folder also. Tom’s second cousin, also Kate, was interested in genealogy while still in middle school and spent some time as a teenager researching family. She was able to fill in a couple of gaps in the material and it was interesting to see the connection between two people 40 years apart in age as they talked about their ancestors.

As much as I love my computer, and couldn’t live without it, there are limitations to keeping everything “on line”. Make a New Year’s resolution NOW to start collecting and preserving family history.  You’ll be glad that you did and you’ll have a great gift for someone one day.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What's Your Story?

As we said in our last blog post, we’re going to give you some tips on how to study history from “My History is America’s History” in the next few postings. The first tip is “Keep a Journal”. Now I’ll admit, I don’t do that—never have and it’s doubtful I ever will. But…I do keep scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about our family, historical events we’ve participated in (such as campaigning for Bob Kerrey when he ran for Senate in Nebraska) and also a journal-like book of my favorite quotes.

Someone once told me it’s a good exercise to write your own obituary as you’d like it to read—and then to go out and live that life. Pretty good advice, actually, but that’s a blog post for my personal blog and not this one.

I do have a “kit” that I bought one year for my birthday on how to write your autobiography. It’s a box of cards, each with a question that can lead you to record your life. Although “The Autobiography Box” by Brian Bouldrey is billed as a “step by step kit for examining the life worth living”, it can also be adapted for your use in recording your personal history.

Here are some examples:

What was your first day of middle school (or for a lot of us--junior high) like? And, I would add, what was the world like at that time?

Do you recall taking a strong political position?

Is there a piece of music that reminds you of a particular time and place in your life? If you’re a “boomer”, that should be easy—unless you’re David Crosby who once said that if you can remember the sixties you weren’t there.

Write about the first time you went away from home alone.

One year for Christmas, I got our son’s grandparents each a book in which to record recollections of their lives. The books were pretty nifty because they had questions to prompt short writings and spots in which to glue old photos. Unfortunately, two of those grandparents died without completing the books and one now has Alzheimer’s. I should have insisted that they complete those books, or at least work on them, when they were young enough to have some fun doing it. But as with many things, we all got busy and now it’s too late.

If you have the inclination, and a willing subject, “My History is America’s History” suggests recording an interview with a family member about an event in his/her life that is also a piece of major American history. I remember the day I told our executive director and my office mate about John Kennedy’s assassination and how we were dismissed early from school with no explanation. Our town was so quiet as I walked home and the only thing I could think was that we had gone to war. Since I’m old enough to be the mother of either of them, this was a piece of history I’m sure neither had ever thought about—kids being dismissed from school after news reports of the President’s death started rolling in and how the American populace responded.

Here are some tips for a good interview:
  1.  Pick a good candidate—someone you’re comfortable with and, I would add, likes to talk…but not too much!
  2. Research the time period and your subject as this will help you formulate questions.
  3. Give your subject plenty of time to think about what they are going to say
  4. Make sure your recording device functions and functions well and that you have a good microphone and plenty of batteries.
  5. Try to focus the interview on one facet of history—for example the Vietnam War or Nixon’s resignation (neither of which I will ever forget).
  6. Think about what you really want to know.
  7. Keep your questions broad enough for your subject to have some flexibility.
  8. Keep the questions open ended to provide your subject room to talk.
  9. Then sit back and LISTEN.
  10. Take a few notes so you can ask good follow up questions.
  11. Don’t pry into personal issues.
  12. Ask difficult questions, if you need to, but be respectful.
  13.  Make sure you’ve covered everything you wanted to.
  14. But don’t go on too long.
  15. Label your tape so it doesn’t get lost and review it as soon as possible after the interview.
  16. Transcriptions are worth the time and investment.
  17. Index the tape if possible with key topics and your notes.
  18. Copy of the tape and send it along with a thank you to your subject.
  19. A release form, even from a family member, is a good idea.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Life is What You Make It...and It Makes History!

As an employee of the History Center, I’m privileged to see what goes on behind the scenes and to see documents that we have housed for research purposes. A blog post last year chronicled the work being done on Council of Defense documents from WWI and two of our volunteers are working on WWII’s pieces. As we began work on the latest issue of the Old Fort News, observations about the personal stories of African Americans and Germans in Fort Wayne during WWI were part of our conversations. You’ll be happy, or distressed depending upon your views, to know in this election year that some things never change.

But what has always been true is that it’s those personal stories that make history come to life. The idea for this post came from a story in my hometown newspaper. Check it out because it’s quite interesting.

This past summer, I spent a week in Nebraska, helping my mother sort through papers and other things that she and my father had accumulated over the course of 61 years of marriage. Since Dad is now in an Alzheimer’s Unit, we’ve tried to find some things that might spark a memory here and there, and so my sisters and I plus a niece and nephew, took a ride with him and a driver from the Kearney (NE) Volunteer Fire Department in a small fire truck he helped to build in the 1950s for the local department. The muscle memory was there—he still remembers how to drive—but his memories of being a volunteer fireman are gone.

We tried for a long time to get him to write down his life experiences—growing up in the depression and serving on an aircraft carrier in WWII that was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. But, if he wrote anything down, we have yet to find it.

We did find, however, the story of his Uncle Benji, who was orphaned as a teenager and lied about his age to enlist in the Army during WWI. I remember as a kid getting our “family letter” and trying to decipher some of the worst handwriting ever imagined because his letters were wonderful. Fortunately, he had typed what he’d written about his time in France and his recuperation from being wounded as well as “gassed” during combat. A copy of those experiences now resides in the Genealogy Department of the Allen County Public Library.

This past month, my husband and I took a two-week journey to England to study one of his ancestors, Archbishop William Sancroft. Sancroft was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral when the Great Fire of London occurred and is responsible for hiring Christopher Wren to rebuild the structure. He served at York Minster and Emmanuel College, where his library of close to 7000 volumes is kept under lock and key in a room where the temperature and lighting are designed to preserve the collection. We got a special look at the books—no photos were allowed—and in the process of the study I learned more about English history than I ever did in a history class. Sancroft was booted from the office of Archbishop when he would not support the monarchy of William and Mary, even though he had disagreed with the previous king about the role of Roman Catholicism in the country. He’s buried in the churchyard in Fressingfield, a small village in Suffolk.

As someone who has loved history since elementary school, and who continues to study it, I found at an early age that biographies, autobiographies, news stories and conversations are far more interesting ways to learn about events than memorizing presidents, dates and wars. You can “look up” that information. But it’s just a small piece of the puzzle of the past.

The Indiana Historical Society occasionally de-accessions books they own and offers these works to those who receive their Friday e-news “Communique on Line”. Last summer I asked for, and received, a copy of “My History Is America’s History: 15 Things You Can Do to Save American’s Stories”. The work was a millennium project of The National Endowment for the Humanities in partnership with the White House Millennium Council.

With the holidays coming up, and families gathering together, here are their suggestions for preserving your family history in a way that is meaningful. We’ll elaborate on these in future blog posts.

  1. Keep a journal
  2. Family recollections matter—preserve them
  3. Play detective with photographs
  4. Discover clues in family papers
  5. Uncover history in the attic
  6. Explore your home’s history
  7. Climb your family tree
  8. Find your family’s place in American history
  9. Write your own story
  10. Make studying history a fun family activity
  11. Share your story
  12. Connect with your community
  13. Use resources available to explore your history
  14. Teach American history through family history
  15. Join your hometown experts

That last one is THEIR idea but a perfect way to plug membership in the History Center. It’s a wonderful gift for your family. Join us today!