personal histories and freedom of speech

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

That was A. J. Liebling’s cynical remark in the early 20th century decrying the monopoly of William Randolph Hearst to control and influence the news. As we celebrate National Freedom of Speech Week, I’m wondering how Liebling would view our world of everyone owning a virtual press.

Until a few years ago if someone wanted a book produced, they needed to ante up thousands of dollars for what was [also cynically] referred to as a “vanity press.” Today, we all have access to virtually free presses in the form of blogs, comments, Twitter, Facebook. and the like. And we have access to real presses that produce real paper and ink [well, technically toner] books. A full-color, full-bleed, hardcover book from blurb.com can be printed one at a time and delivered within a few days for less than $50.

Another cynical and oft-cited remark is that history is written by the victors. Traditional publishers have always been eager to publish the big names in history—Roosevelt, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr.—as well as the more notorious, 15-minutes of fame names. Yet  individuals have recorded their stories and memories for their families: sometimes in the form of diaries, sometimes in audio or video recordings, sometimes just a typed manuscript spiral bound at a local copy shop.

Now, as the cohort Tom Brokaw calls the Greatest Generation is passing and their Baby Boomer children are moving into retirement, a confluence of technology is making it possible and afforadable to capture inidividual stories—personal histories—in the permanent format of a book.

Just as Howard Zinn turned the study of history literally upside down in his People’s History of the United States, personal histories are being published in quantities of 250, 25. 5—even one book at a time—and distributed to a small but eager audience of family, charities and educational institutions, local libraries and museums.

As examples, here are three personal history projects I’ve recently worked on. These were privately commissioned and distributed to a limited audience. [For more details on the projects, visit my Portfolio page.]

Lal: A Legacy of Gracious Giving by Judith Kolva

Hughie’s Boy by Jeanne Archer

We Remember Donna: Family & Friends Pay Tribute to a Special Life by Judith Kolva

Here are three others developed by professional personal historians with a wider distribution anticipated. These were commissioned and funded by grants or volunteer hours.

In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans During the Interment by Schizue Seigel

On Solid Rock: The Founding Vision of Florida Presbyterian/Eckerd College by Stephanie Kadel Taras

My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History edited by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees

While it is quite possible to write a personal history by oneself and get it published through an online, print-on-demand service, it is usually far more productive for the story-teller to work with a professional personal historian. They bring a set of skills to the process and set up a schedule, give the project a shape, and encourage the storyteller to pull out details that might often be overlooked, without pushing them into telling stories they are not ready to tell.

It’s a happy coincidence that this week is also the Annual Conference of the Association of Personal Historians. APH currently has over 600 members from around the world, almost all of them engaged in an active personal history project in some format: print, audio, video, or some combination. If you are near Valley Forge, stop by the Radisson Hotel Valley Forge Saturday afternoon [October 24, 2009] from 1 to 4 pm to see their work displayed.

And think about adding your story to the people’s history being continually written.

Related posts you might like:

what is “book thinking”?

2 Comments

  1. Posted October 20, 2009 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    Love your work, Cj. If I were at Valley Forge this week, I’d buy you a drink for this succinct and insightful article. Brava, Bella!

  2. cj-madigan
    Posted October 20, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Annie! Nice to see you here.