Let’s be honest. Family history used to be the preserve of the maiden aunts. To hear the stories we had to suffer through best china and arm chair doilies and endless digressions on medical procedures suffered by even older and more distant relatives (or worse, totally unheard of acquaintances).
The stories would come – between polite sips of tea and in a miasma of perfume and powder. As a means of enlisting the interest of the younger generations, it didn’t have a lot going for it.
Today’s younger generations are more interested in family history than ever before. The whole country is. But they are demanding that those maiden aunts (and all the rest of us who fulfill the function of family historian) get with the times. They want their family history accessible and they want it compelling.
The rise of genealogy
Genealogy – the study of family origins – is one of the most popular pastimes in this country today – and that interest is growing. Ancestry.com, which provides access to over 6 billion documentary records on-line to family researchers, grew its subscriber base by more than 30% to nearly a million-and-a-half subscribers in 2010. Family history stories crowd the broadcast airwaves (e.g. “Who Do You Think You Are”, “Faces of America” ) as well as the radio airwaves (e.g. “StoryCorps”) and the web (e.g. RootsTelevision). Even the newspapers are climbing onto the bandwagon. The Los Angeles Times just published – on its front pages for three days straight – the compelling story of a man who traced the origin of his white family through his surname (Mozingo) all the way back to a (wait for it) freed slave in the 1600s.
With so much family history available on the web and because so much of our lives are now lived on-line, genealogy and family history have become the 21st Century’s new main hobby. And that hobby is not just limited to finding stuff out and putting it away in old folders. The web is also offering endless opportunities to share the information – through blogs, personal and public websites, and on-line magazines and hub pages. And the device manufacturing companies like Apple and Nokia and HP are supplying ever more powerful devices for accessing all this family history information – including video – at any time from anywhere. We are enjoying truly perfect weather for family history.
For those who have managed to take the obvious next step and committed their family history research to video, there is a plethora of video hosting sites like Flickr, Vimeo, Blip.tv and YouTube where they can share that video. And once you have uploaded your personal history video to one of these sites, you can embed that video in any number of other websites and blogs or send the links on to other interested family members and friends.
The genealogy audience is getting younger
Is the family history bug just biting the oldsters? Far from it. Sure, in the old days, the only way we became acquainted with our family history was to sit down for long and painful visits with distant relatives, hoping that they would come to the point just a little more quickly. Or maybe the information came in sporadic letters, enclosing old and yellowed news cuttings or bad photocopies of family documents with shaky blue pen annotations and underlinings.
But now, with the wonders of desk-top publishing and DIY journalism, with those 6 billion records that Ancestry.com can place twelve inches from the eyes on every home computer, that same information is just as likely to have been compiled and written up and posted somewhere – with pictures and maybe even video. And kids being who they are today, they think nothing of visiting on-line resources, creating links and sending them to their cousins, to show where their family came from.
Meet a 21 year old family history buff
Emma Szafranowycz is an example of this new breed of youngster. Age 21 and half-way through her college degree, she is typical of her friends in being addicted to her cell phone and her iPod and her laptop. But she also loves to go out (literally) and she loves to travel and she loves to shop and she loves to talk. She also has around 500 friends on Facebook – not remote contacts that she met yesterday on-line – but real people she went to school with or has become friends with over the years. (Kids these days do not lose contact with their friends when they leave school or a job – they add them to an ever increasing family on Facebook and keep in touch forever.)
As her name suggests, Emma’s family origins lie in Europe. And among the endless files that Emma keeps on her laptop, she also has the results of family history research carried out within her family. She has old photographs and old documents and a written history of her grandfather – she has the last words he wrote before he died. She also has a family history video about her grandfather and a slideshow of her grandmother that was prepared for her funeral service.
When Emma was at the gym recently she listened on her iPod to audio recordings of her grandfather’s voice talking about his difficult life in Europe and his journey of immigration (he had died more than 10 years ago and his story had been recorded to audio tapes then digitized).
Emma is not that unusual. The next generation are getting in touch with their ancestors and staying in touch with them with a freedom and in a way unimagined a decade ago. It is not so much that this new breed is especially family history minded – it is just that they are especially computer literate. Like it or not, they are a new digital breed. That means that they can access and assimilate the vast archive of digital information that is being created – and that includes family history data and family history video.
The challenge for family historians
The challenge for those of us who may be seen as akin to that “old aunt” is to get with the times. Us family historians have an opportunity like never before to to enroll the interest of our children and grandchildren and our nieces and our nephews. But we need to get with it and use all the digital tools. And video is a great place to start.
Family history video is a good place to start to enlist the interest of the next generation in their origins because, carefully put together, it can create a sense of meaning and importance that will launch them on their journey. In a family history video you can tell a story, illustrate it with images and documents, add voice over, include historical images and archive footage, feature clips of interviews with that maiden aunt, add music. With a family history video you can create mood and emotion and a sense of wonder and possibility.
Once posted on-line to any one of a hundred video hosting sites, that family history video can become a seed thrown to the winds of the ethernet which will carry and land on family computers around the state or around the country or even around the world bringing the story of the family vividly to life. And different family members – or subsequent generations – will fall prey to a new fascination with their own origins and, in their own way, they will add to the story.
Family history is changing in the digital age. But this is not family history like your maiden aunt told it.