Six Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Personal Historian.

Recently I wrote a post about the advantages of using the services of a personal historian. Today I’d like to focus on six questions you need to ask before hiring a personal historian. There are no professional bodies that certify or oversee personal historians. Anyone can hang up a shingle that says “personal historian”.  So it’s buyer beware.

  1. Does the personal historian belong to any professional associations? Belonging to an association such as the Association of Personal Historians, the Oral History Association, or the National Storytelling Association is important. It means the personal historian takes his work seriously as a professional. Associations provide their members with opportunities to learn more and improve their skills.
  2. Does the personal historian have samples of her work? Even if a personal historian is just starting out, she needs to be able to show you a book or video that she has completed. You want to be able to assess the quality of her work.
  3. Is the personal historian open to having you talk to previous clients about their experience? It’s useful to get previous client’s evaluations. While it’s not foolproof, it does allow you to have a better feeling for the person you may hire.
  4. Does the personal historian operate in a professional manner? Does she show up for appointments on time? Does he have a contract that spells out precisely what each stage of the production will entail and how fees are to be calculated? Does she answer all your queries in a prompt, courteous, and clear manner? Does he refrain from pressure tactics?
  5. Do you feel comfortable around this person? Whether you’re hiring a personal historian for yourself or another family member, you want to feel at ease. It will not be an enjoyable experience if you end up spending many hours with someone you don’t like.
  6. Before becoming a personal historian, what was the person’s previous work experience? Personal historians come from all kinds of work backgrounds. But it’s fair to say that many come with experience in the humanities. It’s not uncommon to find former journalists, filmmakers, editors, librarians, and teachers now working as personal historians. There are exceptions to every rule but you’ll likely find a more skilled personal historian coming from the ranks of those who’ve “apprenticed” in the arts. Someone with little life experience whose previous employment hasn’t lent itself to crafting skills in interviewing, writing, and editing may not yet be ready to take on a professional assignment as a personal historian.

Photo by Gareth Simpson

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8 Responses to Six Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Personal Historian.

  1. Rose Marie Morrell

    As a new personal historian I have been looking at your site for ideas in setting up my own. It has been very helpful. I really like this list of questions and answers as it gives me great goals to work for as a personal historian.
    p.s. you have one misspelling–asses should be assess. Have a great day. I hope to meet you in Salt Lake City.

  2. Ooops! Thanks for the typo alert. And thanks for your comments. Good luck with your new personal history business. It’s a wonderful profession.

  3. Your six make good sense. I would change the “your” in the following sentence to “you’re”
    “Whether your hiring a personal historian for yourself or another family member you want to feel at ease. “

  4. Thanks Jim. I just changed your to you’re. This is what happens when you’re tired and writing something late in the day! Mind you, I was an “A” student in spelling as a kid and then when I grew up my grammatical skills somehow flew out the window. Maybe that’s why most of the work I do is in video ;-)

  5. How interesting, I had no idea there was a whole industry springing up around this. I may have to investigate this further. And don’t worry about the typos. I have a friend who teaches English at Rutgers, but when she dashes off an e-mail to me… well… ;) Even she is not above the occasional misspelling. And I know this woman can spell rings around me!

  6. Welcome Digital Dame to the wonderful world of personal history recording and preservation. Thanks for dropping by and reassuring me that I’m in good spelling company!

  7. I stumbled upon your website as I was about to start writing a post on the acceptance speech of Sen Obama.

    I did not know that there is such a thing as a personal historian… and that anyone may be able to join in this business.

    I am very interested in writing about the lives of other people – and maybe someday I will be able to do just that.


  8. Thanks for your comment oftherock. Personal history work is very satisfying. I’ve been doing this for five years now and learn something new every day. Be sure to check out the Association of Personal Historians link on my site. There’s lot’s of good stuff there.

    Best of luck and I hope one day you take up writing the stories of people’s lives.

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