Friday, December 3, 2010

Magic Mirrors

History can be defined as "the aggregate of past events," but also as "the discipline that records and interprets past events involving human beings."

It's the human element which sometimes gets lost.

I've recently come across two options for exploring family histories, one digital, the other, at least in its initial stages, very low tech.

Our local newspaper shared a project called "the memory jar." According to blogger Carol McDowell, of Burlington, Vermont, "the best Christmas gift" she ever received started with a jar full of questions and a journal in which to record the answers. McDowell placed 52 slips of paper, each with its own question, in a decorated Mason jar and asked 89-year-old Ruth McDowell to answer one each week, then return the completed journal to her granddaughter for a Christmas gift.
"My grandmother loves to tell stories, so she not only did the questions, she pasted in old pictures and newspaper bits that she had saved. I ended up with a most cherished piece of her that I probably would never had known and she enjoyed every minute of doing it."

While McDowell's project involved paper and pen, a new website, Proust, offers the opportunity to digitally archive the same sort of information.

Still in beta, Proust aims to help people "discover stories you never knew about your family and friends, gain insights you'll long cherish, and enjoy sharing your own memories." A few of the sample questions might seem a bit trite: What did your mom always pack in your lunch? but such details make up the fabric of a person's life and may, in fact, serve as the key to unlock deeper truths.

Proust is a free service; information is kept private, only shared with chosen family members and friends. Individuals can use questions from the site or substitute their own queries, with the option of adding images or video clips.

The Memory Jar project and Proust share a common goal: to capture and preserve personal history. Imagine the power of combining the two! Ms. McDowell could record reminiscences in her grandmother's own voice, scan the fragile clippings and photos, and preserve them all on Proust. Not only would they then be accessible to other family members, but there would be less danger that these artifacts might be lost or destroyed.

As the holidays approach, why not plan to initiate a Family History project, whether on Proust, Voicethread, Flickr or elsewhere? Create a gift that will have value long after the ornaments and tinsel have been packed away.

"Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present and future." -Gail Lumet Buckley

"If one could make alive again for other people some cobwebbed skein of old dead intrigues and breathe breath and character into dead names and stiff portraits. That is history to me!" -George Macaulay Trevelyan

"23 Reasons" by ShawnMichael
"Mom, WWII" by dianecordell

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