by Pat McNees (revised, updated 11-3-2020)
For twenty years, members of the Association of Personal Historians (APH, which folded in May of 2017) met at a popular annual conference, where people originally from many other fields met to talk about a new type of business: helping others tell their life stories. Here below is a brief history of the organization for those who may be curious about it; former members of the organization are invited to join the conversation through the Comments section. The term “personal historians” never became a household word, but personal histories (usually by other names) are still being produced and local groups of personal historians still meet in various parts of the country or connect online.
Origins. Kitty Axelson-Berry got the idea for APH when she was on the staff of an alternative weekly. Twice a year a press release from Denis Ledoux crossed her desk, about his workshops for turning memories into memoirs, and she kept wondering if this was something she could do. When she left her job, she decided to try it. But transforming herself from an employee to a business person was not easy, and she hated the part about selling herself. She started the organization because she wanted to learn from other people who were already doing it, and she thought it would be a good marketing activity and good publicity for her. She organized a meeting of 20 people at the Lord Jeffrey Inn in Amherst November 3-5, 1995, with the theme Creating the New Field of Personal History Business. That year there were 12 members. The group named itself the Association of Personal Historians.
Growth and disagreement. In southern California a fellow named Bob Joyce, who had been helping people with their memoirs, was thinking of putting together such an organization himself. Bob joined APH, and in 1996 there was a second conference, and 30 APH members. Bob’s vision of the organization was different from Kitty’s. He wanted the organization to grow as large and as fast as possible, and he traveled around California lining people up [at APH expense, adds Kitty]. From the beginning, then, there were lively—some years heated—opinions and arguments about several topics: Should the focus be getting more people to join or being of value to the people who wanted to do the work professionally? Should we be making a living from our work, or should we be spreading the word, that everyone should do a personal history? Should we be up-to-date in fields as diverse as neuroscience, grammar, and new publishing technologies? Quantity or quality? Members argued strongly for one or the other and about how exclusive or inclusive APH should be.
Levels of membership? Members also argued about whether to have different levels of members--Professional members-- professional not in the sense that doctors and lawyers train to be professional, but professional in the sense of being paid, not amateur; associate members, or hobbyists--people interested in knowing how to do a good personal history but not yet doing it as a business; and now and then a third category was proposed: Vendors, people who sell goods and services to personal historians, from transcribing to printing and binding. Academic members wanted the organization to provide a publication in which they could publish learned papers and get academic credits. While welcoming members from academia, the organization shied away from being academic. It was a people’s organization, with an emphasis on doing business. [Kitty corrects: APH was set up with several levels of membership. Academics were "associate members."]
Strong volunteer support. Of 57 members in 1997, 31 attended the third conference, which Audrey Galex and Rosann Kent organized in Decatur, Georgia. Bruce Washburn came home so excited from that conference that he and Anne Washburn set up APH’s first listserv. The organization’s spirit of sharing and caring made it a wonderful place to learn the tricks of the trade, which APH members shared generously. For four years, APH was open to the public and many nonmembers contributed their ideas. In 1995, Kitty had gotten in touch with a woman named Marty Walton, who with her partner Linda Lyman had launched a PH business and run some expensive ads in the New Yorker. (These elicited many requests from potential employees and little else.) Marty joined the listserv as soon as it formed and became the major work horse of the organization, both on the board and later as operations manager. She remembers the strong, strong feelings about which way the organization was going to go. Everything mattered so much to so many people. The exchanges were passionate and at least one person dropped out, feeling bitter when the decision was made to close the listserv to nonmembers.
Great conferences. Bob Joyce organized the fourth conference, held in Santa Ana, California, in 1998. Membership was at 98, of which 65 people attended. Marion Johnson came to the conference after seeing a small article about it in the Los Angeles Times. After more than 20 years in the film industry, she was looking for a new career and checked out the “mini-versity” held the day before the conference, where you could check out what personal history was all about. Rae Jean Sielen gave a workshop on bookbinding and Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story , described a method for writing life-stories using screenplay-story-structure techniques.
Word spread. Lettice Stuart learned about APH while she was on the road talking up her book on housing options for seniors . After she gave a talk in Morgantown, West Virginia, Rae Jean Sielen approached, handed her a brochure and asked if she knew about APH. Back at her hotel, Lettice looked at the brochure and was miffed. “'What!? These people stole my idea!’ I honestly thought I had dreamed up the concept and even invented the term ‘personal history.’ The brochure announced an upcoming conference in California, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that maybe I could learn something from other people doing the same thing I was doing. Why re-invent the wheel? I had lots of clients, but I was just making the process up as I went along. So I flew from Houston to Santa Ana, rented a car, and went to the conference with very little expectation. That conference changed my life. I would not be in business today were it not for the support, resources, ideas, energy and wealth of information that I got there.”
Lettice and Marion met at that conference. Lettice had been producing books for about a year, and Marion was taking journalism and graphic design classes at UCLA extension, so they were a good fit. Marion began designing Lettice’s books and they were beauties. APH conferences were wonderful for networking. “In 1998, few people had ever heard of the personal history business,” says Marion, “and only a handful were making a living producing life stories." Part of the reason for coming to the conference was to make these connections. Often shop talk was the chief benefit, with the additional payoff of friendships, and sometimes productive partnerships formed.
Catching the wave of the digital revolution. APH was also capitalizing on a growing interest in memoirs, genealogy, and family history. APH especially focused on gathering stories from the living (academia favored stories from the dead). Its members believed that ordinary people had as much right as celebrities and bigwigs to publish their memoirs, even if to a smaller, more personal, audience. The journalists, writers, and oral historians among us could help teach others the principles and techniques of interviewing, recording, and archiving interviews. Editors and publishers could take advantage of a growing acceptance of self-publishing, and help personal historians know what to do as "custom publishers." Screenwriters, novelists, and writers could teach the concept of the narrative arc, which wasn't always easily adapted to the structuring of life stories. Therapists, social workers, and researchers could talk about the value of reminiscence in aging and the sensitivities needed to work with victims of trauma. Techies of many stripes gave workshops about the digital processes revolutionizing book, audio, and video publication. Conferences also featured speakers on business, copyright, and legal issues.
Becoming visible to the public. In 1999, APH filed for incorporation as a 501(c)(6) in Delaware – a trade association, a business league. Many members spent a lot of time doing the work of launching an organization, working with a kind of missionary zeal to spread the word. Several people spent more time working for the organization than making money for themselves. Lettice didn’t see herself as a board person, but at her first business meeting, in 1998, they kept asking for volunteers for the board, and when it got to marketing director Rosann Kent said, "Folks, this is the Come to Jesus moment,” and Lettice found herself raising her hand and becoming marketing director.
She was a natural at it. Lettice came up with the slogan “Saving Lives, one story at a time” – and put “Let’s Get Personal” on tee shirts. It was Lettice who pushed reporters to write articles about APH, and whose friend at the Wall Street Journal wrote the first major media article about APH. Then several national publications got on the bandwagon and published stories – Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, and many more. Membership doubled, then tripled. By the time of the Dallas conference, in 2000, five years after APH started, APH had 277 members.
All-inclusive or professional only? About then members of the board started arguing about credentialing or certification. Kitty was for it, and Bob Joyce was against it. Half the board left the Chicago board meeting (1999) in tears. Like a hot potato, the subject kept coming up, ever hotter to the point of being acrimonious--– culminating in some startling arguments at the Dallas (2000) and Tampa (2001) board and business meetings (which always preceded the annual conference). Some members remember an outraged Kitty putting on her pearls and summoning up all her anger, threatening to sue. That's the legend, anyway. Kitty says she never never would have sued or threatened to sue, and remembers only taking off her shoe and pounding it on a table like Khrushchev. Lettice sums up what followed: “The idea of moving the organization from one that accepted anyone to a professional organization caused a furor! People on both sides of the issue threatened to quit. We debated and studied and debated until finally we decided to shelve the idea. We felt the membership was too varied in its PH offerings and not yet large enough to undertake such a demanding process.”
Something for everyone conferences. Lauren Dunbar organized the first Video Share, which was held as a salon session in a too-small room at the Vancouver conference in 2002. "It was standing room only, which surprised the doubters," says Lauren. "As a career documentary filmmaker with a few short video biography pieces under my belt, I wanted to know who else would be interested in this form of preserving family stories and histories." Soon more folks from the world of broadcast--and even wedding videographers--joined APH and video workshops became regular features of the conference. as all-day pre-conference workshops, regular workshops, and Video Share (which too often competed with Print Show and Tell). We watched our fellow members’ videos late into the night from the Vancouver conference on.
What made APH different from most other creator conferences was that members specializing in different "genres" could learn from each other and also learn who to delegate work to when a client wanted both a book and a video (for example). At the Denver Conference, 2003, workshops were geared to people at beginner, advanced, and general audience levels. After workshops held in Baltimore, 2004, and Grand Rapids, 2005, the granddaddy of them all in terms of numbers was the conference in Portland, Oregon, in 2006, attended by 261 and a standout event. Portland was also the last conference organized entirely by volunteers. Paula Stallings "Tex" Yost was hired to manage the last four months of Oregon and became APH’s paid event manager from 2006 through 2016. She was a hell of a horse trader, which kept APH events reasonably priced enough that they were one of the best values among organizations for creative people that many of us had ever experienced.
For many years, the beloved Marty Walton did most of the work of administering the organization--collecting dues, managing the budget, and so on, for a pittance. Finally, in 2012 the organization hired its first executive director, Linda Coffin, also a personal historian, with a particular interest in genealogy.
APH held conferences in Nashville (2007), Salt Lake City (2008), Valley Forge, near Philadelphia (2009), Victoria, BC (2010), Las Vegas (2011), St. Louis (2012), Washington, DC (2013), St. Louis again (2014) Sacramento (2015), and Fort Worth (2016). Over the years, the conferences grew in sophistication. But low attendance at the Fort Worth conference (which Tex did not organize) , declining membership, and greater use of online networking and collaboration landed APH in financial trouble, which led to the board's difficult decision to file for bankruptcy in early 2017. For so lovable and loved an organization, it was a very sad day.
Some members of APH did some of their personal history work pro bono and many more did the work as a business, but the idea was that no matter which, they should do it at a professional level of quality. That is what united the two levels of personal historians: wanting the products to be as good as possible. One thing members tended to share was a love of doing this kind of work and a sense of mission about getting everyone in the world to want to have personal stories done for the people in their families. APH's membership stayed within a certain range over the years, with many members dropping out each year and many new members joining, thinking this would be a swell way to make a living. Figuring out how to make successful entrepreneurs of everyone was part of APH's mission, but relatively few members figured out how to make a living doing so--more often it was a supplement, particularly after retirement from one's first career. (As Kitty put it, recently, "Essentially, APH was formed as a trade association and then changed to a 'hobbyist' organization.") Many of us continue doing the work, however, and you can still find personal historians. Or you can figure out yourself how to put together these memories and products for future generations. Here are some local personal historian groups that are still meeting (by Zoom during the pandemic):
How to find a personal historian. The Association of Personal Historians folded, but local APH groups are springing into existence. Personal historians help other people--ordinary people, not celebrities--tell their life stories in print, in audio, and/or on video. Plenty of us provide services and a few regional organizations have formed. So far you can find local personal historian groups here:
---Life Story Professionals of the Greater Washington Area (DC, Maryland, and Virginia).
---Personal Historians (a Facebook group)
---Personal Historians Northeast Network (a Facebook group but they also have meetings in the Boston area)
---Personal Historians NW (in the Pacific Northwest)
---Life Stories Australia (personal historians, biographers, editors, etc.)
---NYC Personal Historians (a Meetup group). Will the Biographers Guild of Greater New York (BGGNY) also speak up? I can't find you.
---Personal Historians (LinkedIn group)
---Other regional groups of APH members are sure to form. Let me know if you already exist and how clients may reach you, and I'll add you to the list.
Articles about the genre, practice, business of personal histories and other approaches to life story writing
• 21 frequently asked questions about personal histories and personal historians (8-23-17)
• Is it still a great time to become a personal historian? (5-14-17)
• How does one become a personal historian? (on my PatMcNees site)
• The Business of Personal Histories (McNees, ASJA Confidential, Dec. 2008)
• What is the difference between a memoir (or memoirs) and an autobiography?
• Memoirs, memoir writing, and autobiography (links to many excellent articles and essays)
• Voice, persona, and point of view in memoir
• Writer's Digest series of memoir writing
• The life story business and market
• The ethics of memoir writing
• Become a personal historian--help others tell their life story
And books that may help you do personal history work
• Start & Run a Personal History Business: Get Paid to Research Family Ancestry and Write Memoirs by Jennifer Campbell.
• My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History , edited by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees, with a foreword by Rick Bragg.
• More books to help you get started writing your own or someone else's life story
Most personal histories try to capture the stories, voices, images, and messages of one generation to pass on to future generations. They come in many formats and personal historians tend to specialize in one format or another:
• Personal history books range in style from Scrapbook-Plus (well-designed photo-histories with a story woven into the captions), to memoirs, autobiographies or biographies (the full life), to family histories, to heritage editions of well-crafted, richly illustrated narratives in fine bindings. A few of us also write and manage production of community, corporate, and organizational histories.
• Oral historians typically produce a set of audio and/or video recordings and an edited transcript, sometimes with photos.
• Multimedia producers often create moving memorial slide shows set to music (often for tributes, celebrations, funerals, and memorial services). Others, working on a more generous timeline and budget, specialize in video biographies and documentaries.
• One popular do-it-yourself option is reminiscence, life review, or memoir-writing groups, including Guided Autobiography groups—in person or online. Tremendously satisfying to both leaders and participants, and some groups bond and keep meeting long after the official sessions.
• Ethical wills (from the Jewish tradition) and legacy letters (good short-term projects).
• Other products include heritage cookbooks, quilts, posters, and specialty items such as place mats decorated with family photos and slide shows or photobooks for elders with memory problems). A photobook history is a wonderful product to create for someone in dementia or about to be. Having children or teenagers interview elders and record what they are saying is a way to unite the generations (and to make elders feel heard). At first the kids are often more interested in the technology, but then they tend to get curious about elders they might not have thought of as having had young lives like theirs.
Pat McNees was president of APH for two years (2010-11)