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Supplement to “Preserving Personal Histories”




1. If you want to self-publish your personal history, you will need a good computer and high-speed Internet service; dial-up service is not fast enough to upload high-resolution photographs or volumes of text.

2. You can create your text document using a word processing program such as Microsoft Word.

3. Photos make all the difference. Scan and clean all your photographs. Scan them at 300 dots per inch (dpi) minimum. If you want to enlarge photos significantly, scan them at 600 or 1200 dpi; or you can also scan them at 200 or 300 percent at 300 dpi. Make sure your computer has plenty of memory if you’re planning to scan and save a lot to your hard drive. If you don’t know how to scan photos, a full-service business/copying center will do it for you.

4. Look into all the publishing options. Some are less expensive overall if you want just a few copies, while others charge more up front but wind up costing less if you want a greater quantity.

5. Don’t expect to create a book overnight. At least six months to one year is the norm to go from start to published book.

6. Some folks want to do a personal history but fear the process, thinking they may not be able to remember everything. Personal historian Susan Owens has found that no one remembers every detail but most people remember more than they expect. “Start with what you have and it will work out,” she reassures people.

7. Do some retrospective work at the end of your personal history. For example, answer questions such as: If I had life to live over, what would I do differently? In other words, leave some advice for future generations.
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Each personal historian will approach your project differently, but the process Susan Owens uses will give you an idea of what to expect in general.

Owens begins meeting with the client, in person or by phone, for a free hour-long consultation. She talks with each client about who they are doing the book for and what promoted them to undertake the project. She then explains how they might work together.

Once clients have engaged Owens to help them create a personal history, she begins by requesting three things from them:

1. A suggested list of milestones and important dates in their life (education, marriage, divorce, birth of children, work, hobbies, medical events, etc.).

2. A cast of characters, in other words a list of people important in their life—parents, siblings, and so forth, along with relevant years of birth, marriage, and death. There may or may not be much genealogy in the book, but this list helps to prompt questions and clarify relationships.

3. Completion of a historical timeline Owens creates. This form is divided into five-year increments. The left-hand column has room for memory-joggers regarding events in a client’s life—Aunt Milli died, I met Suzy, etc. The right-hand column, already filled in, includes historical events for each five-year period—World War II ended, the Civil Rights movement began, etc., that may help the client to tie their experiences to events of the time.

Owens then either edits a manuscript the client has created or writes a history “from scratch” based on a series of interviews with the client and/or family members. Usually, each interview is no longer than two hours, because the process can be tiring and occasionally even emotional as old memories are discussed.

As the tapes are completed, they are sent off to be transcribed. Using this written transcript as a starting point, Owens then crafts the client’s stories into a book, adding historical context, transitions, and supplemental material as needed. To make the book more engaging, Owens may also add dialog as appropriate. As the book progresses, Owens sends a draft copy to the client to make sure the person likes the approach and style of writing and to correct any inaccuracies.

Going through photographs is also a significant part of the process because pictures add immensely to a personal history. Owens is fortunate to have her husband David Wilkes as a partner. David, a retired marketing and high-tech executive, scans client photographs and other images, takes additional photographs as needed, and digitally repairs damaged images using Adobe’s Photoshop software.

If you hire a personal historian, you can expect that person to proofread for typographical errors and work with the printer or publisher of your choice.

Most personal histories require between eight and 10 hours of interviews. On average, it takes 25 hours of work for each hour of tape, including research, writing, and preparing photos. Because it is such a time-consuming process, the average personal history covering significant events of a lifetime can cost $10,000–$12,000, though shorter works, such as books commemorating an event, such as a 50th wedding anniversary, are significantly less.
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To read the Kentucky Living August 2011 feature that goes along with this supplement, go to Preserving Personal Histories.

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