The Stories on Your Bookshelves

By Pam Pacelli Cooper
President, Verissima Productions



Two weeks ago, I wrote about transporting several bins of family papers from Chicago to Boston. This week, I’m thinking about the books on my shelves, and the story they tell.


Soon after we arrived home, we had guests from Tennessee in our Airbnb. I walked in to find one of them cross-legged on the floor in our living room, looking at the books in the old mahogany bookcase that had belonged to my husband’s grandfather. I hadn’t even considered that anyone would look through our books, and I began to wonder what he might find and what he might think of our book selection. He pulled out Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, and purchased by me as a part of my training as a therapist. He was fascinated, having never read it before, and the contents of the book made for lively discussions during the rest of his week-long stay, particularly in light of current events.


That started me thinking: what is on our bookshelves, and what stories do our various book collections tell? I’ve looked through only a few of our many bookcases, but so far I’ve found: 10 years worth of book club selections, which brought back memories of spirited discussions; several shelves of therapy books which span 40 years of different trainings and illustrate my evolution as a psychotherapist; a collection of poems, which limn the outlines of various loves in my life; and the finely bound sets of Dickens and Thackeray and Shakespeare, left to us by my father-in-law, an English professor whose love of word and wit has passed down directly to our son.


I felt a sense of appreciation and awe that I had found yet another rich source of family history in a place I hadn’t considered before.


bookshelfblogphotoWhat stories are the books on your shelves telling about you? About your loves, your vocations, your friendships, your family?


If you have resorted to minimalism (I’m a lost cause, there), what books have you kept and why?


What would it be like to call your parents or your siblings or your cousins and compare collections to discover what stories their books tell?


Before everything resides on a Kindle, I hope you can mine your books for the themes in your life.


Please share your thoughts here. We’d love to know—and get ideas.

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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 6 – Amateur Historians Pt. 2


In Part 2 of of our series on “Amateurs”, hear the rest of our interview with Historian John Morrison as he describes how he came upon a fresh and revealing look on Ben Franklin, and his connection to Boston, while doing research as volunteer tour guide for Boston by Foot.

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Goodbye Britannica: The Rise of Online Research

The Universal Encyclopedia

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions





All the dishes were washed and put away, and the dining room table was cleared for me to do my homework. That night, it was a report on clocks.  I walked down the long hall from the dining room to the foyer where our set of 1936 leather bound Encyclopedia Britannica’s rested in their own mahogany bookshelf, adorned with a stripe of ebony wood on the perimeter.


At approximately the same time I was doing those reports and pulling out the Volume that said “Ca-Cl,” a science fiction writer named Isaac Asimov was imagining a world where there would be a Universal Encyclopedia, with unprecedented amounts of knowledge available to all.


The Universal Encyclopedia has arrived. After 224 years, the Britannica stopped publication in 2012, and if you have a set in your house, it is more of a collector’s item than a reference source.




Do you mourn its demise? Sometimes I do, but mostly I am overwhelmed with gratitude, (when I’m not just overwhelmed) by the availability of research material online that is available to all of us.  Not just text, but films, and audio recordings and virtual tours of museums.universal-encyclopedia6


As a personal historian, I can use this Universal Encyclopedia to access the broader historical context that will bring my client’s story to life. An African American client, whose family migrated to Detroit in the 1930’s, can have a soundtrack on their video biography that includes part of a field recording from the Library of Congress’ Alan Lomax archives, recorded in 1938. CLICK HERE to listen to a blues song about Joe Louis, heavyweight champion and hero to African Americans of the time (best audio starts  at 1:04)


And suppose one of my subjects has a history in Massachusetts which stretches back to Colonial times and is connected to the Adams family? With ONE CLICK I can go to the “volume” of letters from John to Abigail Adams, digitized online at the Mass Historical Society and give texture to the story:


Whether you are looking at the Adams collection, searching for Civil War pension records, or viewing old films on the Library of Congress website, the Universal Encyclopedia transports you to other worlds and in a way that I never would have conceived when I opened that “Ca-Cl” volume to do my homework.


Sometimes it’ still necessary to go to libraries, museums, and historic homes to get the information you need, but isn’t it thrilling that the vision that of science fiction half a century ago is now a reality?


What are your favorite online historical resources?  Please share with a comment below!


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History Finds A New Home: The Journey of the Plastic Bins

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions



My mother lives in a small, one bedroom apartment on Chicago’s North Side. The one big thing about the apartment is the closets. There are three large ones, and they would be the envy of anyone in the Northeast who lives in a 19th century house designed for wardrobes. For years, her closets have been filled, top to bottom with strong boxes, plastic bags, suitcases, old hat carriers, and a lavender jewelry box with a scene from Godey’s Lady’s book on the lid. Much of this trove of history has seen post offices in Kansas and Kalamazoo, San Diego and Saint Louis and Chicago apartments ranging from post WWII efficiencies to a 13 room “palace”.


And now, they’re all coming East with me.  Not able to organize them herself, mother has asked me to take them to a new home.  I go to the local Target and buy color-coordinated bins and spend four days packing them, carefully, for their journey.  Some of the paper is very old and crumbling (note to self: acid free sleeves). Some of the photos have been stored deep in boxes so they appear almost new as I unpack them from their hiding places.  There are familiar pieces of history: my great great grandfather’s affidavits for his Civil War pension, the napkins with love notes on them from my father to my mother, the daguerreotype c.1850 with the stern looking twins in it.  There are also surprises: a long series of letters between my great grandmother and her older sister about their other sister, who was suffering from mental illness, a lock of hair from the young son my great grandmother lost to tetanus in 1900; the lectures my grandmother gave across the West in the 1930’s when she ran a depression-era charm school.



1861 Godey’s Ladies Book.


We pack them up and drive back to the East, across Michigan, into Ontario, then New York State and back to Massachusetts—the exact reverse of the migration that led my Ipswich, Massachusetts relatives to Illinois in the first place.


We carry the six bins up to the third floor of our house, where they will be keeping company with the bins we brought from Memphis six years ago when my mother in law passed away.


Now, I begin the task of cataloging these artifacts and adding the stories they bring with them to the names and dates in my family tree.


How many bins have you transported?  What have you done with your family materials and what have you learned? Please write in and let us know.
Please also tune in to our podcast for this month, where John Morrison describes his adventures with history in an historic home.



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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 5 – “Amateur Historian”

Old Houses and Puritan Contentions

A special Waltham childhood in an unusual house sparks a love of history and research and…what is the connection between a fiery Puritan and the United States constitution?  Hear it all on this month’s “Life Preservers” podcast.





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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 4 – Beach Listening


Hooked on podcasts? So are we. We listen at the gym, while travelling, at home, and even relaxing on the beach. For our summer episode of Life Preservers podcast, we’ve chosen 7 off-the-beaten-path podcasts that entertain us, teach us new and useful things, and pique our desire to learn more . Old movies? Ben Franklin? “Hamilton ” as a teenager? Tune in and enjoy. We hope you’ll find a new podcast obsession, and share yours with us!



Attribution This episode contatins excerpts from the following: Plimoth Plantation podcast (iTunes); You Must Remember This ( ; Becoming Wise (; Ben Franklin's World (; Still Buffering (; Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine(; The Bowry Boys: New York City History (

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Brilling and Bedazzled: Creating New Words

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions


My family of origin adores words. We did crossword puzzles, word games, Boggle and Scrabble when I was growing up. I was lucky enough to meet and marry someone who is also a lexophile.


What his family doesn’t do is create words to capture a feeling, an object, or a process where regular words don’t seem to work. I figure if it was OK for Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll (Oh, that “frumious Bandersnatch”), and e.e.cummings, it’s OK for us. We are Neologists.


This custom is proving to be immensely valuable as I talk to my now 90-year- old mother. In some ways, she is as sharp as ever, but her vocabulary is slipping along with her memory. As I try to piece together her personal history, we amble through our conversations, stopping along the way to clarify words and memories that are now quite murky. One day, we were working our way back to 1936 when she made a cross-country trip with her parents, seeking a dry climate for her stepfather, whose mustard-gassed lungs couldn’t take the cold, humid Chicago weather. She stalled when trying to describe the diary her mother had kept of the trip. “I don’t remember the correct sequence,” she said. “ My memory is just not what it was.” Then she paused again. “Just a minute, I think I’ll go into my Remembory and see if I can find it.” And she did.


Her Remembory: I loved it this new word! It brought to mind the famous “Memory Palaces” created by the Ancient Greeks, buildings in their brains that had rooms and shelves and doors in which they organized and stored vast amounts of material.




My own Remembory resembles the stacks in an immense library built in the 19th century. The stacks go up several levels, but there are also basements and subbasements where some of the most arcane and fascinating materials are stored. When I can’t think of something, I imagine myself filling out a slip of paper at the
library and the reference librarian “ sending down to the stacks” to get it. Sometimes it takes awhile, but with patience, it returns.


Do you have a “Remembory,” a place where you go to search for information from the past when you can’t find it in the present? Can you describe it for us?


NOTE: After I wrote this blog, I looked up Remembory on Google and found this from the “Urban Dictionary”: the recall of an almost forgotten memory, leading to a story.

Someone else out there is making up words, too…





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Life Preservers Podcast–Episode 3: An Interview with Francie King

A responsibility not “accepted blithely.” Join us as Francie King of History Keep describes her work with personal history clients, drawing on her years of journalism experience. You’ll also encounter treasured letters, Revolutionary War re-enactors, and a magnificent mother as we enter Part 3 of our journey to find the personal stories of personal historians.



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How We Tell Our Stories


By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions


We tell stories with video and audio. In the personal histories we create we hope to capture the successes and happy moments, but also the moments of pain, mistakes, and repair. If future generations see only the “great” moments of their grandparents’ lives, they may be cowed and dispirited, rather than inspired, so we try to encourage our subjects to cover the whole terrain–not with sensational “tell all” moments–but with depth, sensitivity, and a regard for their own  humanity. These are the stories that will be remembered, not as “family myths,” but as guiding stars.


In that spirit, I offer a link to the 2016 graduation speech at Colgate University, delivered by  Dr.  Omid Safi of Duke University, Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and also a columnist for the popular podcast “On Being.”


It’s  long, but so very rich. And, far more than just advice to 21 year-olds, it’s a reminder to us all in this time of discord, about how we might define success. I graduated long ago, but I find these questions stunningly relevant in  my own life.


CLICK HERE to read it (or watch it below) and tell me what you think of it, especially as it relates to how we collect stories–what we ask, what we make forefront, what we push away. And how we tell our own…


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Personal History & Making Choices – Part 3

Personal History and Making Choices - Part 3 by Pam Pacelli Cooper Our first two blogs about making choices  in personal history dealt with awareness and contemplation from: “What is personal history? Never heard of it, “ to “ This sounds interesting, but I want to think more about it.”  Ok, now, you've made it through those first two phases and your relative or your personal history client has thought about it and says they're ready to move forward. Ready to start talking or taping, right?  Not quite. The next step is huge. The  decision has been made to go ahead, but the decision about HOW to proceed has not. As someone who has painted a lot of rooms, I can say that I dislike the spackling and the sanding—I’d rather put the beautiful colors on the wall NOW—but having tried that a few times and ended up with a bumpy, uneven mess, I’ve learned the importance of preparation. If you want want a high-quality personal history, there’s a lot of “spackling” involved.   How can you help in this stage?  1.	Identify supports and obstacles to creating the project. Brainstorm about  how to amortize the supports and overcome the obstacles.  2.	Create a map:  There are many ways to do this, but your map must have a beginning, signposts along the way, and a destination ( the final product).  3.	Keep the larger purpose in mind: Why are you doing this, and for whom? If things get dicey or stall,  visualize the faces of your great grandchildren as they learn about their family, or imagine an historian coming across the World War II letters from your grandfather that you’ve donated to the local historical society.   You’ve made the decision, you’ve got the vision, you’ve made a map. NOW you are ready to take action!  This is the stage most of us are familiar with. It involves setting the steps of our carefully laid plan into motion and adjusting as we need to, always keeping the end in mind.  What has your experience been with these three phases? How did you help move someone through the first two stages to the third stage of being ready for the project? Do you have a system for creating a personal history map that's worked well for you? Share your experiences in the comments section!

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