Recording Personal History
Kristine Woodworth and her business parter, Jennifer Sauers, know that asking questions is an art. And the success of their business hinges on the condition that they are proficient in this nuanced discipline.
Once working in marketing research, Woodworth began professionally pursuing her interest in recording personal histories a few years ago, when she left her job in 2007 and met Sauers. Sauers’ mother-in-law asked her to put together a family cookbook, and that’s when the idea struck them. "She put together this book, and we thought, ‘Wow, there must really be an opportunity for us to help people do this sort of thing,’" Woodworth says.
From this realization, the pair started talking to their friends and helping them with small, similar projects in documenting the stories of the lives of mothers, fathers and older relatives. Soon after, Beyond the Trees was born. Now, four years later, the pair do about 25 to 35 projects for clients in a typical year, Woodworth says.
Many of these projects involve interviewing elderly family members to create books for their children or grandchildren. Although it may seem counterintuitive that these interviews should be facilitated by someone outside the family, Woodworth says she and Sauers have seen a lot of positive results from these interviews by a stranger. "I think what happens is children roll their eyes when their parents tell stories, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard that a million times,’" Woodworth says. "So, sometimes it’s good to have fresh ears and ask questions family members won’t. Everyone has something that they want to tell."
This element of successful interviews is especially important with a lot of older people, Woodworth says. She and Sauers often find that elderly people can be a bit reserved when it comes to confiding some details of their life stories. "Generally, we find that these people need a lot of encouragement to tell their stories. That usually happens when the interviewer expresses an interest," Woodworth says.
Once they have interviewed the involved people to get their stories, Beyond the Trees makes them a personalized book (or sometimes, books) to often be given to children or grandchildren. Although a lot of their customers are people looking to preserve the stories of their parents or grandparents as they age, Woodworth says their clientele is a diverse group. The pair have made memory books for high school graduation parties and coaches’ or teachers’ gifts, too. "It’s sort of all over the place," she says. "It’s something for every age, really."
Additionally, the company functions as an independent printer for people looking to publish commercially on a small scale. Woodworth says some of her favorite books they’ve published were anthologies of essays. One was a book of essays written by people with Down syndrome, and another featured writings from women at risk of homelessness in the Cincinnati area.
Although the business of publishing personal history isn’t in the mainstream yet, there is a growing network of personal historians to which Sauers and Woodworth belong, called the Association of Personal Historians, a group founded in 1995 that now numbers more than 500 members.
It was to raise awareness of its business as well as the slowly growing industry throughout the world that Beyond the Trees sponsored the first-ever Personal History Expo in Clifton on September 24. The event went better than they could’ve expected, with more than 200 people in attendance, and the business plans to make the expo an annual event, Woodworth says. Getting people aware of and interested in personal history projects continues to be a focus of Beyond the Trees. "It’s something that people haven’t heard too much about," she says. "We’re really trying to get the word out."