Don Carpenter once read a story about a young man who paid a group of boys to put a bird’s nest that had fallen to the ground back up in a nearby tree because he was worried about the birds’ safety.
That young man was his grandfather, and the story was in a journal he discovered in his home, containing anecdotes and stories from his grandfather’s youth.
Carpenter put the experiences from this journal on his grandfather's profile on familysearch.org so all his relatives could experience his grandfather’s stories and emotions.
“I’m glad I found it, and I’m glad I got it out there,” Carpenter said. “If it was kept in my closet, who knows where it’d wind up?”
Carpenter and his daughter, Janet Hovorka, have devised a “plan of attack” to make sure the never-ending piles of papers and boxes stacked away in the attic don’t sit lifeless, forever accumulating dust. They spoke about the importance of preserving and sharing family history during a Thursday afternoon session of the RootsTech conference.
Hovorka expressed gratitude to her father for sharing the stories about his grandfather with the rest of his family.
“Otherwise, that personality would have been lost,” she said.
Carpenter encouraged his listeners to immediately begin taking part in family history. While future generations can always research external facts and information such as dates, it is thoughts, feelings and beliefs that need to be captured and preserved. It is that “inner life” that provides a complete picture of a person, he said.
“Preserve it, digitize it, share it,” Carpenter said. “Don’t hoard it.”
Carpenter and Hovorka told listeners to talk to their relatives and to discover what stories about their ancestors are out there. They said these documents should be preserved as soon as they are collected.
The first step in preserving is to make sure the physical document is in good condition, they said. This includes removing staples and paper clips, taking off any uneven pressure, keeping the document safe from any temperature fluctuation or humidity, and never folding or rolling the document.
They emphasized the importance of making sure every family member receives copies of important documents because the more copies that exist, the better chance a document has of surviving.
They also encouraged their listeners to consider putting documents in well-funded archives, university libraries or historical and genealogy societies to ensure that the physical records do not get misplaced or lost.
The second step in preserving is to digitize the records, they said. This includes taking a picture of the document and then metadata tagging and labeling it so information about the picture is always attached to the file. They recommended saving the document in several file types.
Another part of digitizing family history records includes putting them on large established family history websites such as FamilySearch, Ancestry and MyHeritage — just as Carpenter did with his grandfather's stories, Hovorka said.
Carpenter and Hovorka told their audience to immediately start digging into their family history.
“It is critical to begin sharing and talking about history with the family members that are alive now, because they will care about it and they will care to preserve it,” Hovorka said. “Go home and talk to your family about it.”
They offered five tips for sharing family history.
1. Find a common interest. A key part of preserving and sharing family history is to make sure family is interested and invested, Hovorka said. She and her father told listeners to build bridges between the past and present by finding ways to connect with their ancestors. This can include discovering hobbies, interests or characteristics of an ancestor’s personality that they might share in common.
2. Make family history a lifestyle. Family history should not be an occasional topic, but something that is regular and brought up all the time, Carpenter and Hovorka said.
“The transmission of family history is more of a lifestyle activity than a single event,” Carpenter said. “Each encounter with your own family history adds to the foundational knowledge of family roots. ... It provides greater self-awareness, respect, gratitude and a sense of identity and self-confidence.”
“Family history is the culture of our family,” Hovorka added.
3. Don’t avoid hard issues. Carpenter and Hovorka said people often have a tendency to share the best images and stories about themselves, leaving out the experiences that paint a less-than-ideal picture. They encouraged audience members to be authentic and share their mistakes and trials with their family members.
“It is those challenging situations that can be the most instructive,” Hovorka said.
She recalled once reading an autobiography her great-grandmother had written that included some serious trials and tribulations. Hovorka said this document was meaningful to her because it helped her get through some of her own trials.
“I knew I would make it through because my great-grandmother did,” Hovorka said.
4. Sharpen storytelling skills. Storytelling can be a powerful way to teach and uplift others, Carpenter and Hovorka said. Bringing to life family narratives with ups and downs, happiness and sorrows can teach and uplift others.
"Telling stories is important because it gives your children and grandchildren resilience," Hovorka said. "If your family is rolling your eyes at you, you’re telling the story wrong,”
5. Display your family history. Put up family charts, stories and pictures around the house so family members can see them daily.
Carpenter said every day he looks at a family chart displayed on one wall of his living room.
“I look at these faces and I know their stories, and it’s very humbling,” he said. “It makes me wonder, ‘What am I doing with my time and how am I making a difference in the world?’"
“Family history is critical to the emotional well-being of our future families,” Hovorka said. “It creates a sense of self-esteem and resilience to know where you’re from."