Family History and the Power of Personal Testimony.

Bringing Family Heritage to Life.

The advice given to most novice family historians is to speak to your older relatives. This makes a lot of sense. They've been around a lot longer, had more life experiences and listened to the stories of their parents and grandparents. In theory, there should be a lot to tell. In reality, it's not always that straightforward.


Many older people take pleasure and comfort from telling anecdotes about their life experiences. Recalling a time when they 'did their bit' during some of the tumultuous times of the 20th century can be a source of great pride. Thinking back to their experiences in wartime can trigger memories of a time when they felt they were doing an important job and contributing to keeping the country going. But there is much anecdotal evidence about service men and women finding it difficult to adjust back to 'normal life'. And for some, their experiences were so traumatic that they have no desire to allow those memories to resurface.

However, after a lifetime there is likely to be a mixture of memories. It is well documented that reminiscing about the past can be beneficial to health and well being on many levels, including for people with dementia. Reminiscence can also play a part in conflict resolution and enable some degree of closure.

For the purposes of family history, the benefits of personal testimony can be far reaching. Imagine how satisfying it is to be able to harness and make a record of those stories which can be shared for generations to come. Of course, the big events in the course of a lifetime are likely to be recorded somewhere in official sources, but the anecdotal stories about these events are what brings them to life. Those little nuggets of information that just come out of the blue and provoke a response along the lines of "what! Why haven't I heard about this before?" 

You may have older relatives who like to talk about the past but if not, just try asking. You may be surprised to discover they might think no-one is interested in what they have to say. It may the case that they actually relish the opportunity to talk about what has been important to them, almost as a way of tidying up the loose ends of life. I would always suggest asking whether they are happy for you to record your conversations. This helps the flow and will make it easier for you to convert to a written record afterwards.

As a family historian, it is your job to make a lasting record of recollections. It is second nature for researchers to look for additional evidence to support the stories, although often there will be none. This is not about doubting the story but acknowledging that after a lifetime, memories can be a little hazy. 

So why not engage with your older relatives? It may be the last opportunity they have to tell their story and this can have a very powerful effect, even raising self esteem. And you will have a valuable family archive to pass on to future generations.