Should You Open a Personal History Business?

Are you looking to go into business for yourself but having difficulty choosing the type of business to open? Have you previously worked as a writer, editor, storyteller, or are you a history buff? Do you love talking with new people? Opening a personal history business may be perfect for you! In fact, even if you haven’t worked as a personal historian before, you may already have the transferable skills to run a successful business in this rapidly expanding industry. For example, excellent communication skills and being adaptable to new situations are qualities that will help you as a personal historian.

What Is a Personal Historian?

What does it mean to be a personal historian?

In this job, you are a professional storyteller ― or rather, in a less catchy sounding way, you are a professional story-recorder. You are hired by an individual or family (or even business, corporation, or organization) to record their life stories. You immerse yourself in the family’s or business’s history by conducting interviews to reveal background, and major events including highlights and lowlights as well as their personal feelings about such events. The final product of your work is a flowing narrative about the individual’s or family’s history. It can come in several formats such as a CD, manuscript, or book.

It is important to know that genealogy is not the same job as personal history. The latter of the two records the memoirs or stories of relatives or businesses. These two fields are however related and personal historians may use some genealogical techniques to enhance a family’s story.

Being a personal historian also means wearing several different hats. In the first part of each project, you will be listening and recording your client’s stories. The second (and much larger) task is to do the transcribing, editing, organizing, and designing for the final project. In general, every hour of recorded interview means 15 to 20 hours of work in order to get it ready to be published. On top of this, you will be acting as an accountant, a marketing manager, and a customer service representative for your business. Being able to multi-task is very important!

What Skills Do You Need to Become a Personal Historian?

You might be surprised at how much of your previous work experience may be applicable for a career as a personal historian. Here is a list of transferable skills that would serve you well in this industry:

  • Research skills: You may need to dig up genealogical facts about the individual or family, or fill in the gaps between stories that have been lost.
  • Interpersonal skills: You could be interviewing all types of people in all ages. The topics can be quite personal, so you’ll want to ensure that your clients are comfortable around you.
  • Interviewing skills: In order to create a high-quality and comprehensive product, you need to know what questions to ask, and how to get clients to open up.
  • Organizational skills: You will be organizing all the interviews and other material such as photos, audio and/or video clips together into a final product. Sometimes you may be dealing with old photos that are irreplaceable, so organization of this material is very important.
  • Writing and editing skills: Your central task will be recording the stories into the desired format. In some cases, your client may want exact wording, and in others they may want a flowing chronological narrative for their life stories.
  • Creative skills: Creating the final product requires imagination. You are not handing the client(s) a transcript, but rather a completed project that embodies the family’s stories. You want it to appeal to the younger generations as this is who will be enjoying it!
  • Graphic design skills: Although you may contract out a graphic designer, it will be easier to visually produce your vision if you know a bit about how graphic programs function, and what their capabilities are. Personal historians are most often naturally curious people who enjoy hearing people’s stories. In this role, you will have to ask questions, sometimes personal or highly emotional ones, to get those stories recorded. Learning how to cope with these situations is important. You should remain neutral about your opinions of the stories being revealed. You are not a judge, but a recorder of the stories.

What Are the Unique Benefits of Opening a Personal History Business?

Jennifer Campbell, owner of Heritage Memoirs and author of Start & Run a Personal History Business, offers some of the best reasons to open this type of business:

  • This is a rapidly expanding industry. The number of memoirs released by public figures is growing each year. This has increased awareness and interest in recording life stories and family histories. As the baby boomers get older, they will likely want to record their lives, so this industry will continue to grow.
  • The rise of social media has given us a renewed interest in recording what happens in our lives. Hiring a personal historian to professionally document all of your life-changing moments is a logical progression because many individuals have already begun the work online. You do not need a large start-up fund! The main two items you will need to start this business are a computer and an audio recorder. Both need to be very reliable.
  • This is a very mobile business, so all you may need is a home office (depending of course on the available space in your home).
  • Being a personal historian can be a very gratifying job for two reasons: You are your own boss and you are helping families in a very special way by preserving their precious memories for future generations to enjoy.

Being a personal historian can be a truly rewarding job, but as with any business, there is a learning curve. You will need to learn how to find clients, conduct interviews, and create the final product. A great resource to consider is Start & Run a Personal History Business, written by Jennifer Campbell and available in our online shop.

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