The popularity of TV programs like Finding Your Roots, Who Do You Think You Are? and Genealogy Roadshow proves there is broad interest in family history. Is it time for technology to play a starring role?

It seems like an idea whose time has come: the Cloud-based family history repository. As server-based digital storage technology has matured, a number of companies have recognized the emerging need for a service offering organization of personal and family history assets, stored online and safeguarded with password protection. The advantages seem clear—permanent conservation of paper-based assets once they are digitized and uploaded, access for all invitees—photos and mementos no longer moldering on Granny’s top shelf but accessible to all who feel inspired to join.

User-friendly interfaces make it easy to archive a family’s legacy online, and share it by invitation with family and friends. Some people turn to purpose-built sites to share family photos and stories, while others simply use a private Facebook group. 

So why aren’t personal historians seeing more willingness to invest in online family archives from our clients? In researching the current state of the field, I learned that every family project requires one key person to prioritize it and hold others accountable for their roles in making it a success. Online archives are no different.

I talked with Tom Cormier of Legacy Stories (established in 2006), Dean Olsen of LifeMapping (now in pre-launch testing), Missy Calvert of FamilyArc, and personal historian Linda Bugbee, among others. Tom and Linda are fellow members of the Association of Personal Historians.

Have a Personal Touch 

Tom described to me his decade-long search to find the right formula. He finds that people readily create an account and start uploading a few photos and write or record a story or two, but “sustaining the activity falls off quickly, mainly because of life’s distractions. It is work to write about your life.” 

With Legacy Stories, Tom has found that the personal touch is essential. “You need someone to be the ‘quarterback’ of that family’s legacy,” he observed. “The technology is just a platform, a place. It needs to be facilitated with human contact.” Legacy Stories has adopted a business-to-business approach targeting assisted living providers, wealth managers, and estate planners who can offer family legacy curation as complement to their other services. 

Provide a Concierge

FamilyArc solves the “human contact” riddle by providing concierge-style support to guide client families through “four simple steps: curate, catalog, capture, and celebrate,” according to its website. 

“We believe it’s important for clients to know they’re not alone in preserving their legacies, which is why we provide each family with a dedicated curator,” said Missy Calvert, Director of Professional Services for FamilyArc. “We work closely with clients to help them dream about what they want to accomplish and to guide each step of the process.” That includes answering questions about the platform, finding the best services to fit their needs, and encouraging engagement with the broader family. “While it’s still important to have a champion within the family, having an outside professional driving the project helps clients make the most of their online archive,” Missy said.

Tie Story to Place

Dean Olsen was inspired to start LifeMapping by the realization that our life stories are geared to places—residence, school, or work, for example. He discovered that even people with memory loss enjoy looking at familiar maps, and that calling up place-based memories created a pleasant activity with family and caregivers. A technology start-up, LifeMapping comes out of the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Geography and is built over an open-source base map layer that covers the entire Earth. 

Dean envisions a subscription-based platform around which generations of a family come together through a Skype-like interface to tell stories and upload assets, dated and pinned to locations. An extensive set of academically-vetted prompting questions are designed to get the ball rolling for LifeMapping users. Dean hopes the interactions between family members will fuel their urge to keep actively engaged in LifeMapping. Dean and his development team need beta users! All—especially family and personal historians—are invited to sign up. 

Tie Story to a Timeline

Web designer and personal historian Linda Bugbee produces online memoirs—a type of website designed specifically for preserving the past. While the map provides the navigation for the LifeMapping app, the timeline provides the navigation for Linda’s personal/family history websites.

“Personal historians could offer the online memoir as a supplement to their products,” Linda said, “It could be a teaser to spark interest in the family’s book, or a place for additional material that didn’t make it into the book.” The online memoir sites she builds can expand as new material is submitted. “Think of it like a blog,” Linda said. She hopes the sites grow along with the families that use them but her business model doesn’t depend on continued engagement. “If they don’t add more material, that’s fine; each site is complete and beautiful as it stands.” 

Any digital asset can be uploaded to an online platform: video, audio, or image files. What differentiates one platform from another is the navigation tools and finding aids (such as searchable meta-data) that allow users to explore the archive.

Tips for Online Archiving

Desktop work. Photo by Bench Accounting Unsplash 500x334 - Online Personal History Grows When It Gets PersonalIf you should choose to explore an online repository, consider these tips drawn from Wikipedia’s page on personal archiving:

  • Choose an online platform, considering hosting fees, updates, security, and future access.
  • Gather existing material, (documents, digital files) and decide what you think is worth preserving.
  • Choose a categorization or organization method and a file-naming scheme.
  • Use preservation-safe measures as you digitize any physical materials, then store them safely according to archiving best practices.
  • Invite other family members to join and add to the repository. 
  • Make interesting representations like timelines, time capsules, and photo galleries for yourself and ancestors from the materials you have uploaded, to help others get excited about the project.
  • Begin capturing ongoing material.

Just don’t expect the online family repository to take on a life of its own. As I’ve learned, every online archive needs a “quarterback” or “concierge.” In what ways can we as personal historians can help keep a family’s enthusiasm alive? 

Sarah White

Sarah White

A longtime freelance writer and past-owner of a marketing communications firm, Sarah provides memoir coaching services with her business, First Person Productions in Madison, Wisconsin. She has been a member of APH since 2002 and served as president from 2011 to 2015.
Sarah White
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