Tag Archives: Association of Personal Historians

Don’t Do This!

Don’t worry. If you’re expecting this to be another New Year’s admonishment about unhealthy eating, excessive drinking, or lack of exercise, it isn’t. It’s about what not to do if you want to get the best life story interview with your client.

Recently there’s been some discussion among my colleagues at the Association of Personal Historians about the way to record life story interviews.  Some personal historians use a digital voice recorder. Others prefer taking notes by hand or typing the interview directly into their laptop.

The latter make it clear they can type as fast as people talk, edit on the fly, maintain eye contact, and save the time and costs of transcribing the interview. For those who take notes by hand, they explain that this helps them keep the story to the essentials.They may record the interview for reference to ensure the accuracy of quotes. All point out that this method of interviewing is what they’re comfortable with and their clients are happy with their work.

But achieving the best interview possible has nothing to do with the time and cost of transcriptions, what process a personal historian is most comfortable with, or editing on the fly. These are all factors that speak to the preferences of the personal historian not the quality of the interview.

5 good reasons to ditch the laptop and handwritten notes.


1. An integral and invaluable part of any personal history is recording and preserving the spoken word. Hearing  a loved one’s voice is a precious remembrance for bereaved families and future generations. Personal histories involve more than assembling edited transcripts into a story.

2. Laptops and note taking are distracting. I know this from having been interviewed a number of times by journalists. Imagine for a moment that you’re  talking to a columnist. You’re pouring your heart out but she’s writing nothing down. Then you move on to something that seems insignificant and the writer starts scribbling furiously. You wonder why these comments  elicited such a response. It’s unnerving. It’ll be unnerving for your clients too.

3. Multitasking doesn’t work. There is now sufficient research to show that the mind can’t process more than one thing at a time.  People can’t type or take notes and be fully engaged with a client at the same time. Trust me. It can’t be done.

4. Editing decisions are best made after not during an interview. It’s not possible to tell what portions of a narrative need to be dropped until you have a feel for the whole story. An item that seems of little importance at the time of the interview may turn out to be a crucial element in the story.

5. Listening to your interviews improves your skills. There’s tremendous value in recording an interview and being able to play it back. I do it all the time. For one thing, it enables you to see what follow-up questions to ask. But equally important, it gives you an opportunity to assess your strengths and weaknesses as an interviewer.


Not all approaches are equal when it comes to recording personal histories.  Choose a good digital recorder and microphone over a laptop or handwritten notes. Your clients will thank you.

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Photo by DonkeyHotey

Encore! How to Still be a Winner After Losing a Potential Client.

What do you do when you lose a potential client? A few weeks ago this happened to me. I was disappointed but it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last time that I hear the words, “I’m sorry but…”.  However,  over the years I’ve learned to see this as an opportunity and not as a loss. Let me explain … Read more.

How to Listen with Your Eyes.

An eye can threaten like a loaded and levelled gun, or it can insult like hissing or kicking; or, in its altered mood, by beams of kindness, it can make the heart dance for joy. … One of the most wonderful things in nature is a glance of the eye; it transcends speech; it is the bodily symbol of identity.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I had the pleasure of moderating a documentary film presentation and panel discussion at the 16th Annual Association of Personal Historians conference.

The session featured the screening of  Ted Grant: The Art of Observation followed by a Q&A with the audience, the film’s subject Ted Grant, and writer, co-producer, and co-director Heather Mac Andrew.

Ted Grant is the  dean of Canadian photojournalists whose career spans over five decades. In the documentary I was struck by an observation Ted made, “We hear with our ears but we listen with our eyes.”

Ted’s comment got me thinking. As personal historians, the root of our work is the interview. When we’re interviewing then, how do we listen, as Ted says, with our eyes?

When we’re engaged in an interview, it’s not just the words we’re listening to but also the subtext. It’s the eyes that give us clues to what’s behind the words. Our subject may express happiness and contentment but the eyes are sad. We may hear kindness and openness  but the eyes are angry and narrowed.  If we’re doing our job well, we need to check out this dissonance with our interviewee. By listening with our eyes we unearth a richer more authentic story.

If our interviewees are speaking volumes with their eyes, what are we conveying to them through our eyes? I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of talking to someone who appears to be listening. They’re facing us,  their head is nodding appropriately, they’re making sounds of acknowledgment, and yet something tells us they aren’t there with us. What’s going on? A clue is in the eyes. They’re unfocused and distant. Now ask yourself this, “When  interviewing someone who isn’t particularly interesting, what are your eyes conveying?”  If I’m honest with myself, more than likely my eyes are saying, “Dan’s not here.”

There are other examples. If we’re feeling nervous about a particular interview or anxious about a family matter,  our eyes will reflect our internal state. Pretending that all is well will send mixed signals.  Our failure to get a good interview may in part be a result of the conflicting messages we’re conveying to our interview subjects.

Our ability to draw out the best from our clients depends so much on our ability to listen deeply. Thank you Ted Grant for reminding us that as  interviewers  we do indeed hear with our  ears but listen with our eyes.

***You might be interested  in a previous article I wrote in a similar vein  How to Listen With Your Third Ear.***

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Part One. Life Stories and Palliative Care: Your Questions Answered.

I recently participated in the Association of Personal Historians annual conference in Victoria, BC. One of my presentations was  Life Stories as Healing: Working in an End-of-Life Environment. In the workshop we looked at some of the skills needed and challenges faced in providing life stories for patients receiving palliative care.

Near the end of our session I asked participants to write down one “burning question” they wanted answered. We  had time for only a few. I decided that for those who didn’t have their questions answered I would deal with them here. I thought that those of you who weren’t at my workshop might also appreciate seeing the questions and answers. Next week I’ll tackle further questions in Part Two.

How does one set up a personal history program with a hospice?

There is no one right way to set up a program. Much will depend on the local circumstances. From my experience with Victoria Hospice  I’ve learned a few lessons and passed these along in two articles How to Establish a “Life Stories” Hospice Program. Part One and Part Two. For those of you interested in the possibility of a life stories program at your Hospice, these articles would be a good place to start.

Why not charge for life stories work at a hospice? Why should this work be voluntary?

If you’re a professional personal historian, you can request a fee from your Hospice for your services or provide it pro bono. That decision is really up to you and your Hospice.

As a rule, I don’t volunteer my professional services. What I do at Victoria Hospice is volunteer on a regular shift just like the other volunteers. I’ve been doing that for five years.

With regards to the Life Stories program I established, I trained 12 Hospice volunteers, nine of whom are actively engaged in the work. I designed and ran the training programs and for that I was paid my regular fee. I don’t do life story  interviews with patients unless there is no one else available.

I still continue to do the co-ordination of the program on a voluntary basis but I’m working to hand this over eventually to another volunteer. My goal is to have the Life Stories program be totally self sufficient without my involvement. From the beginning I made it clear to the Victoria Hospice administration that I wanted to see such a service succeed but that I did not want to continue to be involved in its day-to-day operation.

Are your hospice “Life Stories” volunteers paid and do the families pay for the service?

Our Life Stories volunteers, save one,  are not professional personal historians and are not paid. They do this work as part of their contribution to Victoria Hospice. We do not charge families for this service.

I should add that from the beginning we decided to keep the service as simple and as cost effective as possible. We only provide unedited audio interviews transferred to CDs. We also provide a list of resource people in the community that families can hire should they wish to do more with their interviews.

How long is a typical “Life Stories” interview session?

To be honest there isn’t really a typical session. So much depends on the condition of the patient. We don’t schedule more than an hour but sessions can be as short as 10 or 15 minutes if the patient is weak or drowsy.

What is the typical time it takes for your volunteers to complete a personal history project?

Again, there is no typical length of time. We tell patients that they can use up to 5 hours of interview time to tell their story. Some manage that and others become too ill to continue beyond an hour or two. So much depends on the overall health of  a patient  when they start the process.

Given the fact that our patients are frail, it can sometimes take 6 or more  weeks to complete 5 hours of interview.

What if the patient is resistant to talking at all?

Our Life Stories program is only offered to those Victoria Hospice patients who request it. At any time a patient may opt out of the Life Stories program if they find it not to their liking.

Next week watch for Part Two.

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Photo by Kelly Sue DeConnick

20 Reasons Why You Need to Attend the 2010 APH Conference.

In a previous post, 10 Great Reasons to Visit Victoria, BC, I extolled the virtues of my home town as the location for this year’s Association of Personal Historians conference. I know that coming up with the cash to attend a conference can raise questions of getting value for your money. Let me be frank. You’d be hard pressed to find another professional conference that gives you as much “bang for your buck” as the APH conference. I speak from experience. If you’re in the business of being a professional personal historian, you owe it to yourself to attend this conference. If you still need more convincing, here are 20 reasons to head to Victoria this November:

  1. You’ll learn enough new insights, skills, and ideas to keep you fueled until next year’s conference.
  2. You’ll meet friendly, seasoned veterans who’ll be happy to share their knowledge and experience with you.
  3. You’ll have the chance to develop business partnerships with other personal historians.
  4. You’ll make new friendships that will help sustain you in your business over the years.
  5. You’ll enjoy the luxury of putting work aside for a few days.
  6. You’ll be stimulated by dynamic keynote presentations.
  7. You’ll find your “Tribe” and be energized by its members who have the same passion as you do for personal histories.
  8. You’ll be able to share your work and experience in a supportive environment.
  9. You’ll get to taste the delights of “Nanaimo Bars” and “Sidney Slices”. Yummy!
  10. You’ll get to meet APH members  from your region.
  11. You’ll be able to put a  a face to the “stars” who post regularly on the APH listserv.
  12. You’ll become part of a vibrant group and return home feeling less isolated and alone in your work.
  13. You’ll get to ask lots of questions.
  14. You’ll have fun exploring Victoria, one of the world’s top travel destinations.
  15. You’ll get to take in the  “bigger picture” of personal histories.
  16. You’ll have epiphanies.
  17. You’ll get to listen to and talk with experts that you’d not normally have a chance to meet.
  18. You’ll discover new solutions to old problems.
  19. You’ll have a chance to test out and refine your “elevator” speech because attendees will be asking you, “What do you do?”
  20. You’ll get to meet me! Just kidding. ;-) But seriously I’m looking forward to meeting many of you at the conference.

© Sebastian Kaulitzki | Dreamstime.com

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10 Great Reasons to Visit Victoria, BC.

Victoria harbor with the Legislative Buildings in the background

No, I haven’t become a travel agent!  I’ll admit though that I love to extol the  virtues of  my home town,Victoria. And as a member of the Association of Personal Historians, I’m excited that this year’s conference will be held in Victoria, November 3 -7,  at the famous Fairmont Empress Hotel.

Located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria is the capital city of British Columbia. Named after Queen Victoria, it was established in 1843 by the Hudson’s Bay Company as a fort and trading post. Today it has an  estimated regional population of 326,000.

Here are 10 great reasons for you to come to Victoria.

1. Participate in the APH “Voices of the Elders” conference. If you’re not yet a member of the Association of Personal Historians, I strongly urge you to become one. You don’t want to miss this conference! You can join the APH by clicking here.

2. International travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler ranked Victoria #1 Best City in the Americas (2003/2004).

3. Aptly named the “Garden City”, Victoria has the mildest climate in Canada. Right now the snowdrops are blooming!

4. Victoria is home to Fisgard lighthouse, Canada’s oldest West Coast lighthouse, built in 1860.

Fisgard Lighthouse

5. Beacon Hill Park is  the site of the world’s tallest, free-standing totem pole carved from a single log. Erected in 1956, it stands  38.8-metres (127 ft.) and was carved  by Kwakwaka’wakw craftsman Mungo Martin.

World's tallest totem pole

6. Victoria is “Mile 0″ of the Trans Canada Highway,  the longest national highway in the world,  spanning 7,821 km (4,860 mi.)

7. Congregation Emanu-El is the oldest house of worship in British Columbia and the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Canada.

8. Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest in Canada and second only to San Francisco which is the oldest in North America.

9.Victoria is home to The Royal BC Museum, one of the foremost cultural institutions in the world.

Butchart Gardens

10. The world famous Butchart Gardens are  a short 21 km (12.6 mi.) drive outside Victoria. Located on 55 acres, these sublime gardens are beautiful year round.


Victoria Harbor photo by Gregory Melle

Fisgard Lighthouse photo by Eric de Leeuw

World’s tallest totem photo by Fawcett5

Butchart Gardens photo by Phil Romans

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If You Miss This Conference, You’ll Regret It.

APH Conference 2009-logo

The Association of Personal Historians  2009 Annual Conference is being held in  Valley Forge, Pennsylvania from  Oct. 21 – 25, 2009.  If you can get to only one conference this year, this is the one to attend.

Warning: Early bird registration ends on July 31st. If you want to save money click here. Non APH members can attend the conference but if you’re not yet a member, I’d encourage you to join the APH. The Conference fees are lower and you’ll receive a wealth of benefits that are well worth the membership fee.

I attended my first APH conference in Portland, Oregon,  in 2006. It was a great experience. Here’s what it did for me:

  • Recharged my batteries: Meeting with and listening to the varied experiences of APH members got me excited about my chosen profession.
  • Honed my skills: From workshops on marketing for introverts  to making demo reels to the therapeutic benefits of life stories, I soaked in new and valuable information.
  • Inspired me: The keynote speakers and workshop leaders helped me see my work in a larger context and made me want to do more.
  • Made new friends: I found personal historians are “my kind of people”. They’re good listeners. They’re enthusiastic. They’re helpful. I still keep in touch with several colleagues I met in Portland.
  • Created a sense of community: Working on our own can sometimes feel daunting and lonely. I left Portland knowing that I was now part of a very vital and enriching community.

Revolutionary Perspectives is the theme for the 2009 APH conference. Paula Stahel, APH President, writes:

… this year’s conference theme,  is designed to help you transform and expand your awareness. The wide array of educational workshops and enlightening speakers will open your eyes to opportunities you can take advantage of immediately. Access to new information, ideas, technology, and connections will offer fresh insight on how to make your business thrive, not just survive, harsh economic times.

I really encourage you to go to this year’s APH conference. It’s an investment you won’t regret. I wish I could say that I’ll see you there but I’m caring for my 91 year-old mother and she’s my priority right now. One day I’ll be back at an APH conference. See you then!

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How to Find A Personal Historian.


Let’s say you’ve decided you really need help getting your personal history completed or you want someone to produce a personal history of  your mother. Where do you find a personal historian?  Here are several suggestions that should help you in your search:

  • Google search: type in any of the following key word combinations – personal historian, your life story, family stories -  and you’ll see an extensive listing of personal historian blogs and web sites.
  • Community centers/libraries: A number of personal historians offer workshops and courses on writing your personal history through such places. You might contact your local community center or library to ask  if they know of any personal historians in your area.
  • Referrals: Most personal historians are happy to refer you to their colleagues. So if you can’t locate  a personal historian in your community go the APH site and get the names of several personal historians who  live nearest to you. Contact them and ask if they might know a local personal historian.
  • Social media: More personal historians are using networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Go to any of these services and search for “personal historian” and you’ll likely find someone.

Photo by Chuck Burgess

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Here’s A Book You’ll Want for Your Library.

cat-and-booksAs a member of the Association of Personal Historians, I’m pleased to tell you about the publication of the Association’s new book, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of  Personal History. The APH website describes the anthology as a celebration of  “the full range of life story writing, from lighthearted stories and deeply felt reminiscence to eyewitness accounts of history…. this rich collection of 49 stories from real life — gathered or written by members of the Association of Personal Historians — also explores the importance of life review and why these stories matter so much.”

Susan Wittig Albert writing in  StoryCircleBookReviews.org says:

If you’re a fan (as I am) of stories rooted in real life, you will very much enjoy this book. It would also make a delightful gift for the storytellers in your family—and might even give them a few valuable ideas (and some important motivation) for telling their own stories. And if you’re a teacher of memoir, reminiscence, or personal history, it would make an excellent addition to your classroom teaching or to your students’ reading list. Imaginatively conceived, thoughtfully arranged, and professionally
edited and presented, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History will be a source of pleasure, information, and instruction.

You can read excerpts from the book here.  Priced at $19.95, you can order the book through the APH by clicking here or at Amazon.com by clicking here.

The anthology is edited by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees with a foreword by Rick Bragg.

Photo by Tyler

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