Writing down family histories as Baby Boomers look back

Historian Jim Henley surveys Old Sacramento from a balcony on Second Street.
Historian Jim Henley surveys Old Sacramento from a balcony on Second Street.

From Holocaust survivors to a Texas rancher battling coyotes and wildfires, millions of Americans’ stories are on the verge of being lost as a whole generation born in the early 20th century passes away. Personal historians, however, are coming to the rescue of Baby Boomers hitting their 60s and using new technology to record their family’s stories.

More than 600 such historians from 33 countries converged on the Capitol Plaza Holiday Inn this weekend for “Cultivate & Thrive,” an annual conference of the Association of Personal Historians Inc. Part of a booming industry, the historians came from as far away as Brazil and Australia for workshops on interviewing for print and video, crafting stories, online publishing and mining genealogical data.

“Many people plan to write their story some day, but often that day never happens,” said Liz Salamy Abess, chairwoman of the annual conference and a former newspaper editor and reporter turned personal historian.

“I really enjoy people and hearing their stories,” she said. “There are therapeutic benefits to telling your story, and I love seeing a client’s surprise when a new detail is discovered ... maybe an unexpected letter from a child or a piece of genealogy.”

The ranks of personal historians include former broadcasters, attorneys, social workers, doctors, hospice volunteers, psychologists and teachers, Abess said. For most of them, it’s a full-time job, with personal histories generally taking nine months to two years to complete and ranging from 100 to 300 pages, including photos and images, she said.

The histories can cost anywhere from $2,000 to upwards of $50,000 to write, depending on the depth and breadth of research and reporting and whether there’s already a memoir or diary to work with. A basic video story can be produced in a few months and runs about $2,000 to $5,000.

While Abess and other personal historians pride themselves on accuracy, they’re generally not writing tell-all biographies for public consumption.

Kitty Axelson-Berry, a former newspaper editor from Amherst, Mass., founded the association 20 years ago “when nobody knew what a personal historian was,” she said. The 66-year-old began with the saga of her mother, Doris Prowler Lebow, and finished the 200-page memoir a year later, including recipes and Word War II letters between her mom and dad. “My mom was a little bit critical, but now my family treasures it,” she said.

She said personal historians bring a fresh ear to familiar stories because people will reveal information they’d never tell a grandchild, such as an affair or an abortion.

“More than half of our clients are adult children who are beginning to freak out that they’re going to lose the story, and they don’t have the skills to wade through the mishegas,” Axelson-Berry said, using the Yiddish word for craziness.

Axelson-Berry has written more than 100 personal histories and will charge as little as $5,000 to doctor an existing manuscript – “you write, we finish,” she said – and as much as $50,000 plus expenses for a full history from scratch – “you talk, we write.” Printing costs can run from $1,000 to $15,000 depending on the number of copies, and whether they’re paperback or hardcover.

Her clients include CEOs of major corporations, rags-to-riches immigrants, children of Holocaust survivors, and prominent lawyers and farmers. “But the common man and woman is our bread and butter,” Axelson-Berry said. “People need to tell their stories and pass down their legacy – it’s as important a stage of life as learning how to walk or crawl.”

Elizabeth Pozzi-Thanner, an oral and personal historian who spends half the year in Austria and half in New York, said people had no idea about the profession 20 years ago, when the first conference was held. The rise of genealogical research and video has changed that, she said.

“It’s much easier to find clients and people are more conscious of their needs for these stories,” she said. “It’s also become more democratic as people can access their personal histories in different ways.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini