4 Steps for Getting Family Photos and Heirlooms to Tell Their Stories

Updated on October 10, 2022
By Thomas MacEntee
By Thomas MacEntee

Many of us have items representing precious family memories: photographs, letters, even quilts and family heirlooms. What if each of them could suddenly become “animated,” jump up and tell their story?

You don’t need complex technology or special effects to have these items tell their “back story” of how they factor into your family history. There are many easy-to-use technologies at your disposal so you can help those family stories get told.

Step 1: Get Organized and Take Inventory

When I cleaned out my mother’s house a few years ago, I was overwhelmed with the amount of photos, letters and other items. Each time I found something, memories kept coming back and soon the minutes turned into hours, with no cleaning progress being made!

Save the reminiscing and memories for later. This takes some restraint, but the payoff will be huge. Locate items you think best represent your family’s legacy and set them aside in a safe place. Use storage bins that are easy to tote from room to room and can secure items from water and other damage.

Also create an inventory sheet, either on paper or on your computer, that describes the item, how it was acquired, and what it means to you and the family.

Step 2: Pick a Storytelling Tool

This is the most difficult part of the process since there are so many choices. Select a tool which works for you; don’t commit to a tool you don’t understand. Some options:

  • Capture audio of family members telling stories. Look for a service that offers smartphone apps as well as a secure website to add photos and other items which can be shared with family members.
  • Journal your stories. You don’t have to be a good writer to tell your family’s story. Look for personal or family historian software programs that provide prompts and questions to be answered. Soon you’ll have your own family book!
  • Use mobile video. With the high quality recording options on today’s mobile devices and table computers, you can interview family and friends easily.

Step 3: Record Those Stories

Once you’ve selected a tool, the fun starts! Set aside some time each week to record the stories for your family. Some tips on the best ways to get started:

  • Don’t worry about capturing the “perfect” story. Just get in there and document the stories. Your first endeavors will some time and effort, but with some practice you’ll get the hang of it and become more efficient (and have more fun!).
  • Prepare a script and practice. Few professional storytellers can just spin a tale off the top of their head. They use notes and they practice.
  • Read the stories of other families. Find books about a family’s history, search on the Web for family blogs, or ask friends in your social network about their own stories. Listen to how they tell the tale and the devices they use to make the story come to life. Take notes and learn which techniques engage you in those stories.

Step 4: Get Family and Friends Involved

Don’t forget to look for opportunities where you can enlist others in your family to preserve family memories. Here are some ideas:

  • Holidays such as Easter, Passover, Christmas and Hanukah. If using an app, pass the smartphone or tablet around the table and have each person answer a question about holidays past.
  • Family events including baby showers, weddings, and graduations. These are perfect times for reminiscing. Be prepared with questions and your recording tool in hand.
  • Structured events such as a family history night. Don’t be afraid to set up a time once a month where the family gets together and focuses on specific memory. Let them know ahead of time so they can do their homework!

Preserve Your Family’s Legacy Through Stories

If you follow through on your commitment to get these mementos to talk, preserving future family memories should be a breeze. Every family has a story, and yours deserves to be told!

Thomas MacEntee is a genealogy author and educator and works with Saving Memories Forever, an easy way to share family memories “one story at a time,” to inspire others to record and preserve their own stories.


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