Recording Family History

Are you interested in your family history? So is Diana O’Brien, 74, a retired school teacher from Tauranga. In this SuperSenior story, she shares her experiences in creating a number of projects for her own family, and the privilege she has in being a volunteer biographer for the local hospice.

Twin Teenagers

The beginning

I have always enjoyed history. It was my favourite subject at college. Our family history has always been important and I have been lucky that various relatives in the past have recorded stories.

My first venture in writing history took place in 1985 when I compiled a booklet on the history of the school and the surrounding district of which I was Principal, for the school’s 75th Jubilee. I found this to be a time consuming but most rewarding project.

In the 1990s with the help of my husband and cousin we made a video recording of my mother and her older sister over the period of a year. My mother was the youngest and her sister one of the older children in a family of 9. There was an 11 year age difference and often they had quite different memories of the same people and happenings.

Recording the family history

Once I retired I had more time to indulge in my interest. My first project was to collaborate with a cousin on a large family history from when one branch of our family arrived in New Zealand in 1840. We started by locating representatives of the descendants of each of the four siblings and gave them the task of gathering information from their relatives. Over the space of about three years, we gathered information and finally assembled it into a wonderful book. We held two book launches and met many many cousins in the process. In this project I was the dogsbody and carried out the tasks I was assigned. My cousin did all the tricky computer work and did a wonderful job. But what a change from 1985 when I had written everything by hand, my school secretary had typed it up, and it was type set in at the printers. I was hooked.

Twin history

Twins Drawing

Over the next few years I have gone on to record our immediate family history in various ways. My twin sister and I recorded our memories of our childhood on set topics with no consultation with each other.

The result was interesting with most recollections being very similar, but some being quite different. I put the collection together in a book with photos for our immediate family.

My niece put the topics together for us, and cut them up into single pieces of paper which she put in a small bag for us each. The idea was we draw out one topic each day and just write for short amount of time whatever came to mind. It made it a more enjoyable experience, rather than an onerous task.

Photo books

I have become a great fan of photo books. There are a number of outfits offering these on line. You upload the photos to their website and then design your own book, with photos and text. Like anything on a computer, it was a bit of a challenge at first but practice makes perfect (or almost). By keeping your eye out for specials it is also a very cost effective way of preserving your photos and memories for future generations.

Childhood home

The first photo books I made were of our holidays. But then I realised how well they would adapt to telling our family stories.   I had the task of sorting through numerous photos left by our mother.   Most of them were not in any album and many were not named. So I used them to do a photo book of our childhood. Each of the six siblings had their own page, and there were family pages and a section devoted to our much loved childhood home. It made a wonderful Christmas present.

Underway are books devoted to our mother, our father, and my husband and children. It is a great way to preserve the best of all those photos lying around in boxes under the bed.

Helping others through the Hospice Biography Service

After an encounter with bowel cancer in which I came out victorious, I decided to volunteer at the local hospice. At an information evening I learnt about the Hospice Biography Service and decided that was the area I wanted to volunteer in. Hospices throughout New Zealand offer a Biography Service to their patients. Trained volunteers listen to the stories of patients, recording them and then transcribing them. Eventually, after adding photos and other bits and pieces , we make these stories into a book for the patient and their families.

We are careful to transcribe the stories just as they are told and it is wonderful how the personality of the person comes through in their story. Not all patients want a book. Some may want letters written or even just to talk but not record. Each one is different. Every person has a story and each one is special. This process can be very therapeutic for the patient, but it is also a wonderful thing to be involved in. I feel very privileged to be entrusted with these stories and love to see the reaction when the book is finished and presented. Even, when sadly as quite often happens, the story cannot be completed you know you have helped that person in some way.

On a personal level being involved has greatly increased my skill level on the computer. It gives me an incentive to learn more about my machine’s capabilities which far exceeds my own. By sharing problems with other volunteers we find solutions or seek help from the experts.

If this is something that interests you, find out if your local Hospice offers a Biography Service and get in touch to learn more about it. Maybe you will become a Volunteer Biographer. You won’t regret it.

Diana’s top tips for recording family history

Writing family histories
  1. Draw up a frame work of what you want to cover. How many generations back? Which branch of your family? Etc.
  2. Ask family members to gather material for you in their branch of the family.
  3. Specify what you are looking for and how much space is available.
  4. Using your family network search for items of particular interest that could be copied.
  5. Make use of genealogy sites, shipping logs, marriage and birth registrations.
Photo Books
  1. Scan all the photos you want into one file or if you are doing a big book you may want to further divide them into sub-files.
  2. I prefer to do all editing of the photos before I put them into the book as I think my programme on the computer is better than the one in the photo book.
  3. Decide on how you want the book to be set out before you begin.
  4. Download the photos in batches into the photo book and deal with each batch before you down load the next lot. You can change things around and add and delete but it easier to have the basic framework in place.
  5. If you have a project in mind get it well underway before you order a book. Specials are happening all the time. Some have longer time-frames to be redeemed than others Rushed work leads to mistakes.
  6. Get someone else to do a final proof read. It is very easy to read over your own mistakes.
  7. Don't beat yourself up if you find mistakes in the final printed copy, it is sure to happen no matter how careful you are.