Personal History Biography: Helpful Web Resources

Our impetus to autobiography
Our impetus to autobiography

The impetus for autobiography

It's increasingly common to record life stories in writing, on audio tapes or with video. Although there is nothing new in this impetus for autobiography, modern tools and techniques make recording our memoirs easier than ever before. And we should record the stories of our lives. Older folks among us in particular have lived though the most dramatic of all centuries. The 20th Century saw more crisis and tragedy than any in previous history. And many of us - or our parents or our grandparents - lived through these often terrible times.

I spend a fair amount of my professional time recording life stories. And I try to encourage everyone to take the time to preserve their family stories. It's not just a job - it's more of a passion. But really, you don't need a pro - as the tips and resources below will prove.

The 20th Century

Of course, the years of the 20th Century were not all death and dislocation. While the world was at war and as it rebuilt, we still fell in love, learned new things, married, gave birth, committed ourselves to our careers and our families, cherished our children, toasted with our friends, and looked forward to better lives for our grandchildren. The difficult times always made room for moments of surcease; moments of hope.

And sure, history books tell the broad story of struggle across the last century. They tell well enough of Depression, World Wars, Famines, Forced Migrations, Conscription, Social Changes, Cold Wars and all the rest. But history is made of breath and blood. History is what happened to us, our friends, our loved ones. Their telling - through personal history biographies of whatever stripe - is what matters. Encouraging their telling is what we must commit to; it is a duty upon them for the sake of their descendants and it is a duty upon us to encourage and assist.

Video Memoir: One Marine's story preserved

Where genealogy fits in

When we look back across the centuries, before the 20th Century, we enter the discipline of genealogy. No witnesses survive to tell us the early history of our families. For that, we must rely mostly on documents and photographs. But in genealogy, a single word can unlock a world. One word can be like a compass direction, or the combination to a safe. The right word and the right combination of circumstances can start a journey or even unlock an entire world of new information. A maiden name, the location of a place in a photo, the name of a town, a cause of death, a date even. One word can indeed unlock a world.

Ancestry.com and the endless nooks and crannies of the internet are a marvelous source of information about distant ancestors. Although, sometimes you just need to get out of the house and visit the courthouse.

County courthouses have been the repositories of record for centuries. What kind of records? Court records like divorces, name changes, naturalizations, adoptions, and civil suits; Vital records like births, deaths and marriages; Estate records like wills, administrations, bond books, accounts, and guardianship records; Land records like deeds, mortgages, survey and plat books.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor...

As we move into the 20th Century, we mostly leave genealogy behind and turn to our living witnesses to history. Of course, so much of that history is war-connected. Some readers will already have sat down with the veteran(s) in their family and heard the stories. They may even have made a video or audio recording of them - the fear and the boredom and the occasional glory of their war experience. But it need not be video - audio and even written personal history biographies will serve to preserve these stories.

Some war stories are more difficult to hear than others. WWII was unique in the sheer volume of death recorded, the property destroyed and the lives upended. The numbers are incomprehensible. As Soviet leader Stalin quipped: "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic". But the souls concerned, and their loved and close ones, are obviously more than the mere "statistics" as Stalin cheerfully described them. They are or were sentient, feeling, loving, cherished family. And some of their personal history biographies are recorded as "video memorials" once the subject has passed. Like this one dedicated to a man who survived the Nazis (and who is pictured throughout this Hub) only to fall victim to the Soviets. Talk about falling from the frying pan into the fire.

The old ones are passing
The old ones are passing

A vanishing breed

Americans suffered in huge numbers during the Second World War. And as many who did not return, many more did make it back. The veterans of WWII are a vanishing breed, perhaps dying at a rate as high as 1000 per day. Three Orange County, California residents decided to record their war experiences on video in 2008.

Happily, some veteran's stories are less about war and are really more about love - like Stan in Europe who wooed Mary in California from the thick of tank duty during WWII.

Different kinds of challenges

But personal history biographies are not the sole preserve of the war veteran. To live is to suffer and survive and even our greatest blessing - our children - become hostages to fortune and the source of endless anxiety and challenge. And then there are the lives defined by a different kind of challenge - voluntary challenges. These are lives marked by self-imposed risk and looked-for adventure. High times without the risk of violent death - I'll take that! And nor do you need a pro to record the story.

So, take the time to record your story in a biography memoir. Currently, you may only have a few descendants to comprise your audience or your readership. But as the years wear on, those numbers will increase and - whether you intended it or not - a whole pyramid of life is forming underneath you. You are a family founder for all of the succeeding generations and it behooves you - like any founder - to tell your story. You can be sure there will be increasing interest as time passes.

Here's to fewer "interesting times"

Those who lived through the 20th Century lived through very "interesting times", as the old Chinese curse has it. We can only hope that the 20th Century proves to be an outlier and succeeding years give us a little less - on the dramatic side anyway - about which to reminisce.

Do you have a story from the 20th Century? I would love to hear about it.

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Comments 2 comments

Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Great hub. Thought provoking. It's very interesting the way you did the pics. Thank you Jane!


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Thanks JaneA. Great Hub and I appreciate the links to other resources. I happen to teach history and my dissertation looked at the experiences of the American soldiers who liberated the Nazi concentration camps. Of course I used many books and traditional histories in my work, but more than anything else I used personal materials. I found a few biographies written by the GI's, but mostly I found letters,journals and diaries.

Fortunately, several major efforts were begun in the 70's and 80's to interview as many GI's about their war experiences as possible. By contacting and visiting over 12 archives I was able eventually to review the detailed interviews and questionnaires of over 400 soldiers who fought in Europe. I also contacted over 200 veterans myself and many of them responded with letters, photographs, copies of pages from their war diaries.

What an incredible historical treasure trove. I could never have completed my work without their generous assistance. And as you said, whether someone was a soldier or not, their life experiences are important and should be recorded if at all possible. They will matter to someone.

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