Genealogy services

How to Preserve Your Family History, No Need for Difficult Interviews

RYAN JOBSON, 32, felt distraught. Her father, 62, had just begun recovering from a heart attack at his home in Woodstock, New York. The couple had always intended to spend time writing the story of the eldest Mr Jobson, with particular emphasis on his years as a student protester. in 1970s Jamaica. But now Ryan, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, feared that the time to put pen to paper would never come.

A former student introduced him to Storyworth. For $99, the company will send weekly invites to an email address of your choosing. Each email contains a question that you wrote or chose from the Storyworth library. (Examples of queries: “Who are your favorite artists?”; “Do you have any regrets in life?”) The recipient types in their responses and has the option of attaching related photos. After the year, everything is bound in a hardcover book.

Mr. Jobson tried. He expected to hear specific stories he already knew but was surprised to find that his father opened up more than he ever had before.

Eviatar Zerubavel, professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers, says debriefing relatives to explore genealogy has taken a back seat since archival and genetic-based attempts have become more accessible and common. The results of this research, says Professor Zerubavel, often seem more “real” than anything you would have gathered on a call with your grandmother. there, or maybe a generation or two.”

Professor Zerubavel’s great-grandmother, for example, was born in 1876, in what is now Minsk. “His own grandparents and great-grandparents were there when Napoleon entered Russia. Beethoven was alive. Haydn was alive. So the history of classical music is personal.”

Free tools exist from organizations like StoryCorps to help facilitate these conversations, and of course you can always record and transcribe your subject’s memories. And with these, you won’t run into any of the issues that some Storyworth subscribers have: the company can only print your final book in English, Spanish, French, and “most other Western languages.” If your respondent writes in Arabic, you may need to translate.

Some online reviewers want the company to provide alternatives to answer typing, which can be difficult for writers with mobility issues or who have never learned to type.

Looking back, Bernard Slack, 66, says he might have appreciated the ability to record his answers, but says he had no trouble typing them out. The retired Littleton, Colorado-based financial services professional enjoyed providing short and cheeky answers to some questions to “get a raise” from the girls who bought the membership as a gift. For “How is your life different from when you were a child?” he wrote: “I have more money.”

Dave Coustan, a 47-year-old Atlanta-based podcast producer, struggled to get his 79-year-old father to engage with the prompts the service initially suggested. But the answers improved dramatically once Mr. Coustan began to personalize the questions by emphasizing details he knew about his father’s life. Eventually, he uncovered a story about selling fake cancer drugs to his grandmother in the 1950s and discovered how her death inspired his father to become a doctor. “The story really helped me understand his dedication on the pitch,” Mr Coustan said.

Jalisa Whitley, a 32-year-old nonprofit director who lives in Brentwood, Maryland, said her 67-year-old mother immediately went to Storyworth. Ms Whitley felt the urge to get a subscription after losing several family members during the pandemic. “I thought a lot about the stories that hadn’t been told about their lives,” she said.

Her mother’s detailed answers changed the way Ms Whitley viewed her childhood. “It helped me give him more grace,” she said. “It gave me a better context of how she presented herself as a parent.” And it’s given her insights into ancestral history that she doesn’t think she’s been able to get using a service that relies on official records. For black families in the United States, she notes, those records don’t always exist.

Storyworth entries can be accessed anytime on your account page, but those who have received their book say it can be a powerful tangible item. Mr. Jobson recalls that when his father saw the bound volume, he said, “I don’t know how I did that.”

Subsequently, Mr. Jobson was surprised by the number of people outside his family who asked to read it, mainly friends from the Jamaican diaspora. He sees it as a way to document history through the eyes of the family who lived through significant historical events and to democratize recorded history. “I think it’s an invaluable resource to have the stories of everyday people from that period,” he said.