Family History in the 21st Century

family history is about more than the records and documents

So much is written about the overwhelming popularity of genealogy, and the proof is all around: accessible (and inexpensive) DNA tests, fun (and memorable) Ancestry commercials, stylized family tree art as gifts…you get the idea.

It’s quite possible you are one of the millions of family history enthusiasts who consider tracing your roots a worthwhile hobby. I count myself among them, too.

But I worry that with all the focus on discovering distant cousins and fleshing out the family tree, we may be losing sight of what makes family history so important: the history behind the names.

I am heartened that so many others, like me, are refocusing their genealogy lens onto discovering, sharing, and preserving the stories of those who came before us.

Sure, the research must happen, and the documents will hopefully be preserved; but the life experiences of our ancestors, when they are known, should be told in ways that are accessible. Trust me when I say that it is highly unlikely your ancestors will be thrilled to sort through 18 boxes of census records and ship manifests, no matter how meticulously catalogued they are.

They will, however, read a story.


Family History Told Engagingly

A recent survey indicated that American readers don’t respond so much to literary writing as they do to the power of story. Stories resonate. Stories make us feel, and relate. They inspire. Just imagine how much more powerful stories can be when they are about—or by—your own family!

So no, you don’t need to be a writer to begin writing your family stories—your kin will not care about a misplaced comma or a run-on sentence when they are being gifted with a story of someone whose blood they share.


“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

—Rudyard Kipling

There are so many ways to go about preserving your family stories. I think it is important, though, to pick one and begin. To inspire you, I’ve compiled some resources to make dipping your toes into the narrative family history waters easier.


Resources for Telling Family Stories

Storytelling, Writing & Oral History

  • In her well-organized Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History, Judith Moyer writes: “Many people become concerned about ‘doing it right,’ yet they also recognize that a voice on tape is better than nothing at all. So they try just a simple interview, just talking to someone for an hour. Ten years later such people are thankful that they made the effort, and those who did not …well, they have regrets.”

  • On my own site, check out Books to Help You Write Your Family Stories, Even if You Are Not a Writer; and download the popular resource How to Use Photographs as Prompts for Writing Life Stories.

  • I’m a big fan of Family Search's #52Stories initiative, which provides the inspiration to write down one story every week for a year, bringing you 52 steps closer to completing your personal history. Plus, see how two folks have taken up the challenge successfully.

  • If you are considering interviewing family members to capture their stories, first, congratulations! Second, browse some questions in advance, but remember to use them only as a guideline—curiosity will assuredly be your best guide.

    • Questions to help prompt memories of lost loved ones

    • Questions great for a party or friendly gathering

    • Questions for aspiring memoir writers

Genealogy & Family History

Your genealogical research will become the bare bones onto which you build the flesh of your family stories. So whether you spend just a few days confirming names and birth dates or you make genealogy a lifelong endeavor, these links will prove helpful.

Branching Out

I am curious to see where your family history research takes you! Good luck in tracing your roots, and please, please remember to preserve family stories—your own as well as your ancestors’—as part of your genealogical journey.