Photo, Photo, Who’s That in the Photo?


By Pamela Pacelli-Cooper

President, Verissima Productions Incorporated


Who takes the photos in your family? Do you have stacks and stacks of albums from past years, a Picasa or Flickr account with thousands of images, or do you stay away from taking photographs because it’s too much trouble? And what about photos from your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents’ generation? Were your ancestors photo- inclined? Or are there just one or two precious pictures of family gatherings?


May is National Photography month, and it’s a good time to think about the ways that photographs, past and present, can help create the context of your family history. Using photographs to enrich personal histories involves three major functions:


Identification: Who is the person/people in the photograph you own? When was it taken? Where was it taken? What is going on around the people in the image? If you can follow some of the clues in even the simplest photograph, you may learn things about your family that provide missing details about how they lived and what they enjoyed, details not found in genealogical records or oral histories handed down over the generations.

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Organization: Where are your family photos? Online? In a closet? In someone else’s closet? Pulling everything together into categories that make sense is often a huge task, but one that can yield great benefits for generations to come. If you organize your photos, which includes pruning your collection, you can ensure that noone down the line says: “ Didn’t Joe have seven siblings? Where are their pictures?”


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Preservation: While it’s tempting to think you can save everything online, the Internet is far from foolproof. Photo sites can be hacked, go down, or disappear altogether. Familiarizing yourself with the best methods for backing up your files digitally and preserving older, valuable prints and photographs (such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes) in hard copy is essential for maintaining a complete family record.


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With these three steps and help from the listed online resources it’s easy to get started on making your family photographs a rich and informative part of your history.


Photo credits in top banner from L to R: Young Child,  1850 (public domain); Brownie Camera (Library of Congress); Oregon Ladies Basketball Team (public domain).



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Context, Context, Context: Personal Historians and American History

By Pamela Pacelli, Personal Historian

President, Verissima Productions

Photos from The Library of Congress. L: The microphone used by FDR during Fireside Chats; TR African American soldiers during WW1; BR: A group of suffragettes.


So you’re doing a personal history for someone and they want to write about their grandmother who was the first woman to vote in her tiny Kansas town. Or, you’re interviewing a 90-year-old man from Pennsylvania whose father fought in the First World War 100 years ago.  How important is it for you to do research on the suffrage movement in Kansas in 1918 or on Pennsylvania militias?


Very important.  If you don’t know the context, you can’t ask the questions that will elicit the deepest and most thoughtful responses from your subject, or to place those responses in the broader picture of the times in which they lived. If you don’t make yourself familiar with the history of the War in Vietnam or Afghanistan, how can you ask about their effect on the lives of your subject and his/her family?  While someone might not have certain things at the top of their memory, “contextual prompts” are likely to bring forth memories and associations that have never been mined before. You’ll then be able to help them create a  work that will place them squarely in history –and that personal history will  leave a deep legacy for future readers.


In the spirit of the last days of American History month, here are 8 blogs I have found to be useful and stimulating to my work. Readers, add your favorites to the mix in the comments section!




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Palaces for the People: You and the Public Library

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The Blackstone Library, Chicago


By: Pamela Pacelli

President, Verissima Productions


I was 7 years old and the huge grey building with its copper dome and tall, fluted columns seemed like one of the palaces I had read about in fairy tales. My mother and I walked through the heavy bronze door into a room with marble floors, large wooden desks and books surrounding everything. A librarian sat behind the desk and asked, “What can I help you find?”


At that moment, standing in that magical room, my long love affair with books, and with the buildings that house them, was born. I have favorite libraries to visit—some are architecturally awesome, others have comfortable nooks where I can read undisturbed, still others have special collections on subjects that interest me, like art and architecture, or civil war history.


This is National Library Week, nestled in the center of American History month.


I began to think about the history of libraries in the history of our nation and to appreciate just how important they have been to generations of new citizens.


At first, all libraries were private and consisted of collections of books, which were as rare as precious gems at the time, held under close guard and available only to the few. As the American colony became a nation, the first free libraries sprang up, most notably in Philadelphia and Boston, a sign of the new democratic ideals of spreading knowledge and civic pride throughout the citizenry (for years, only “white” and “male”). But it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that libraries, designated as temples of learning”, were being built by towns and cities all across the nation. It was in those libraries that young children of immigrants became the first in their family to read and translated the world for their parents and grandparents. My father was one, son of Italian immigrants. His mother couldn’t read, so he read to her.


Today, libraries are changing, but they are no less vital. They are much more digitally based, of course, and some lament that physical books are going to disappear. Yet, they continue to serve their communities. My friend, who does literacy training, meets with her student in the study carrels at a local library. Young families check out or download video and audio books to take home.


As a personal historian, I am fascinated by the place of libraries in the lives of my subjects, their ancestors, and, now, their children and their grandchildren.


What about you?

What was your first experience with a public library?

What place did libraries play in the history of your family?

What is happening in your community library today? Do you know?

Do you think physical library buildings are still important?

What do you think would happen to our culture if knowledge were

available only online with high speed Internet?

If you’d like to know more, and see some ways to think about libraries, check out this link: or take a peek at this video from one of my local libraries, the great Boston Public Library.

From the Boston Public Library via Mitchell Rosenwald

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Fabulous Women in Great Movies…


By Pam Pacelli Cooper

Verissima Productions


As Women’s History Month winds down, I think of all the marvelous, silly, gripping,

and sometimes infuriating roles given to actresses over the years in the thousands

of films I have seen.  A list of some of my favorites follows (in no special order).


1. Who is your favorite, or least favorite, characters and say what attracts or

repulses you about them?

2. If you were to write a memoir about yourself, which movie character(s) would

come closest to describing you?

3. If you are a personal historian, have you ever asked one of your subjects who her

(or even his) favorite female characters are?


My list:

Mona Lisa DeVito ( Marisa Tomei) in “My Cousin Vinny”

Juno McGuff ( Ellen Page) in “Juno”

Eleanor Shaw ( Angela Lansbury) in “The Manchurian Candidate

Norma Rae (Sally Field) in “Norma Rae”

Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange) in “Frances”

Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) in “Klute” also Jane Fonda in “Coming Home”

Karen Silkwood ( Meryl Streep) in “Silkwood”

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence in her first role) in “Winter’s Bone”

Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) in “La Strada”

Cesira (Sophia Loren) in “Two Women”


If you haven’t seen some of these, you will be in for a treat. Viva Netflix! And…Viva

Women’s History Month!


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Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate


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“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”…but you’ve got a long, long way to go.

A post for Women’s History Month, 2015

By Pam Pacelli Cooper, Verissima Productions




Many people are used to thinking about women’s struggles to gain equality and physical safety as a thing of the past. We see the statistics describing women’s rise to the top in corporations, in educational achievement, in politics, and in the Supreme Court, where we now have 3 female justices.


And yet…things are not always as rosy as they seem. Two powerful films, recently released, provide context for the life of women in the 21st century. The first, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, “ traces the rise of the women’s movement from 1966-1971. Excellent footage and in depth interviews with veterans of this movement connect with the voices of contemporary women who continue to struggle with issues of choice, violence against women, and income inequality. Click here to watch the trailer.


Another haunting film, just out is “The Hunting Ground,” which explores the complexity of violence against women on college campuses. Viewed in conjunction with “She’s Beautiful,” it provides a stunning commentary on what can happen when sexual “freedom” is abused and issues of power are not addressed. Click here to see trailer.


Questions for Personal Historians:

1. Are you familiar with the history of women in your country, state, institution of learning?

2. Are you familiar with what is happening in the lives of women today?

3. How does this inform the questions you ask your female subjects when you are conducting an oral history?

4. Do you believe it is important to include contextual questions like these?

5. How do you deal with the challenge of people who say these questions are “political” and don’t belong in a personal history?


NEXT WEEK: My list of some books and movies that have inspired me as a woman, and a request to comment and add yours.

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A Wider View

by Pam Pacelli Cooper

Verissima Productions


Today’s excerpt from the “Abbott Leonard Cohen Tapes,” recorded when he was 91 years old, provide a perfect example of the ways our perceptions can be altered when interviewing subjects or when reading diaries someone has left behind.


For most of his life, Len Cohen’s grandson Rob believed that his grandfather was a teetotaler. He remembers his grandfather’s often quoted comment:

   “He who puts liquor to his brother’s lips is in danger of hell’s fires”


As we read through the transcripts, we found one entire side of a tape which described Grandpa Cohen’s experiences during Prohibition. Here is one excerpt:


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[When Prohibition started] I was 32 or 33 …it lasted 13 years.


What people went through …was sort of like the disturbance of a colony of ants when their hill was kicked over…everyone scurried to find their comfort level. First there were those who accustomed to having hard liquor were determined to continue to have it unlimited. And they did just that…bootleggers and illicit chip stills sprouted like mushrooms over the land and Tennessee was way up in front in that development. The name bootlegger is derived from the seller of illicit whiskey. Of course, he carried bottles of his product handily in the leg of his high boots for immediate delivery. Bootleggers also carried real whiskey in the same way when they could get it. And there were ways to get it and they did, such as hijacking. And I know of one highly regarded citizen who had an arrangement with two negro Pullman porters whose run took them to New Orleans or El Paso, Texas who brought back to him and others, real bonded liquor.


Experiments with home brew

Everybody started the national experiment of making home brew, that’s homemade beer. And everyone had a different recipe for making it. Most efforts were not successful. Corks were popping all over town, not in celebration of the success, but because of too much yield that was in the mix, caused the corks to pop out of the bottles.


The Kick of the White Mule

Everybody had a friend who told him of a friend from whom he could buy White Mule …a raw un-aged corn liquor. In its infancy hardly fit for human consumption. So we would buy a five-gallon charcoal lined keg of it and put in some very small charcoal chips and then put the plug in the keg and that was it. Then we would set the keg aside for months or more, for Christmas or when it was ready to use.


[One year]I bought a keg of White Mule getting ready for Christmas which was about nine months away and stored it in the attic. Nine months is no age at all for [most] liquor.. . but White Mule has a real kick, or one might say, a wallop, even at that age. 


Two weeks before the gestation period was over I went up to the attic to bottle the treasure. I had lived up to every part of the prescription implicitly. So I leaned over cautiously and fondly to pick up the keg expecting to strain a bit in lifting a five gallon keg full of liquor. Imagine my surprise to say nothing of the shock, the keg was as light as a feather, absolutely empty. It seemed that the keg had a tiny pinhole leak and drop by drop the whiskey had escaped. We found a moire pattern on the floor under the keg as the only evidence that we had that it had been gradually dripping out. The bunghole was still perfectly tight. So we called the emergency bootlegger who saved the day. Merry Christmas!


What a shock! This upright man who everyone knew to be moderate In every way had broken the law on a regular basis (along with many others) during his 30’s.


As you explore your family photographs, diaries, tapes, and films, what surprises have you found? Have they altered your view of your ancestors?


For us, reading the whole chapter about Prohibition led to the understanding that Mr. Cohen was quite well versed in the nuances of the liquor trade. And it altered the myth a bit and made grandpa seem more believable, a more well-rounded character in our family’s story.


Young Men at the Stills during Prohibition

Young Men at the Stills – Photo Courtesy of the New York Daily News

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5 Great Reasons to Love the Family History Library in Salt Lake City

Several years ago, the Association of Personal Historians held their conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Mecca of family history. While I was there I had the opportunity to visit the Family History LibraryAs RootsTech 2015, a large annual genealogical conference, kicks off in Salt Lake today, I thought I’d share 5 reasons to visit (and love) this fabulous library.


Courtesy of
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1. It is the largest library of its kind in the world: You will be amazed at the vast holdings there. I was able to find an obscure land record from the 1840’s within a half an hour of entering the library because…

2. There are hundreds of well-trained volunteers to help you. Part of the service that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do involves going on 2-year missions to various parts of the world. Some missionaries serve the family history library, and they do so with a passion and a knowledge base that is impressive. When you enter the library, you are asked if you need help. No searching out harried reference librarians with limited hours. Wish every library had the funds and staffing to do this!

3. It’s free!

4. Records are available from other countries as well as the United States and are being digitally updated on a daily basis.

5. You can continue your research once you leave Salt Lake by forum, website, or telephone


If you’re lucky enough to be attending RootsTech 2015, be sure to make the Family History library a stop during your time in Salt Lake, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

If you aren’t able to be at RootsTech, you can follow along online via their conference live stream at

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Building a family history: Where to start?

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

Verissima Productions


Wedding of AL Cohen and Irene Schloss, 1916, Memphis, TN

Wedding of AL Cohen and Irene Schloss, 1916, Memphis, TN


My mother in law Polly died 5 years ago. Her dining room table is now ours, her bed is in our guest room, and we have kept the vow we made when we inherited some of her things to have more dinner parties and to fill our guest room with family and friends just as she had done for so many years in her home in Memphis, Tennessee. What we haven’t done so well is to document and organize the numerous plastic storage tubs of family history mementos that came with us in the car when we left Memphis. We wanted the grandchildren and great grandchildren to benefit from the richness of their heritage. We’re personal historians. We do this for others, so it should be easy…


Yet, when we looked at all that material we felt as overwhelmed as I’m sure some of our clients feel when we ask them to gather materials for a family story. So, we decided to practice what we preach and do our own family history compilation. Where to start?  When I work with clients, I always ask them if they have any form of written or filmed materials from parents or grandparents, believing that a primary source is the best foundation for constructing a family history.


We were lucky and we were also just on the edge of being very unlucky. In the bottom of one tub was a compact box containing 11 audiocassettes and, we were to discover, 4 generations of family history. Inside were the reminiscences of Abbott Leonard Cohen, born in 1882. His daughter Polly, born in 1917, had interviewed him in 1974, when he was 92 years old. Len, as he was known, grew up in the Jewish community of Memphis during a very different time.

Abbott Leonard Cohen, 1883

Abbott Leonard Cohen, 1883


We had the cassettes transferred to digital files and then had those files transcribed. We had done it just in time – the cassettes were corroding and a couple of them broke when they were being transferred. Thanks to the expertise of the company we hired, we were able to save almost all of what was on the tapes.


In future blogs, we’ll share with you some of what we found, and also share with you the process of working on a family history. We hope you will enjoy it!


A hint for doing your own family history:


If you have family history materials on outdated forms of media: old films, cassette tapes, VHS tapes, get them moved onto digital media now. Film will turn black and break, cassette tapes will twist and curl up, and VHS will not be available to you. There are many reputable companies who will perform these services for you at a reasonable cost. The information you will save is more than worth the cost of saving it.


Serendipitously while writing this post I found a lovely, poignant article about inheriting objects and all that comes with them from the New York Times. If you’ve got a few more minutes to spare, you can read it here:


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Dust in the Wind: Preserving that which will pass away

By Pam Pacelli-Cooper

President, Verissima Productions


Winter_2013_MFAI am returning to this blog after 18 months. As I was thinking about what to write, I came upon a short online essay by Christopher Cavin, a Zen monk and therapist who practices in Salt Lake City, the beating heart of genealogy in the United States.


Here’s what he wrote:

I know a truth, for I go to Estate Sales



Estate Sales: a Tour of your Future.

I loved you so much, you were so beautiful, and so brilliant, when we were young, and are even more so now.


A good man, with his religious books, his tools, his newer computer equipment and antique recording equipment…A good woman, with her important sayings framed on the walls, her sewing room filled with irons and yarn, her kitchen stocked with the correct implements, no doubt appropriately fussed over.


…And that drama, all those mini-dramas, all those intimate moments, all those supposed and real crises, washed aside but living imperfectly in the memories of those who, always from the periphery, witnessed them.


I wander through, heavy heart…And over the morning, his books, her sewing room, his tools and records, her china and cookery, are spread again throughout the village like a blanket…


…as the shoppers come and go.


As personal historians, we are dedicated to preserving and making sense of those books, those tools, those memories. What is the relationship we have with the knowledge that is contained in all these items? What can we do to help ensure that the lives of the people the items represent will live on after the items themselves have been scattered far beyond their places of origin? If we keep the image of the Estate Sale in our minds, how can it deepen the work we do?


If the traces of a life can be changed or destroyed in a moment — washed away in the floods of Katrina, buried in the silt of Sandy, left forever untold after a sudden death– what is our role?


How can we personal historians give meaning to our creations? What are the gifts a personal history can bring to the larger world…gifts that reach beyond the personal satisfaction of a story well told, or the pride of recounting family accomplishments?


This is one of the topics I plan to explore in 2015. I will be posting new Blogs every two weeks. Once a month, I will blog about larger topics like this one. The second monthly blog will trace the creation of a specific personal history for Abbott Leonard Cohen, a resident of Memphis, TN, born in 1882. You’ll be able to see how we take outdated forms of media (cassette tapes, 8 mm film) and long-scattered snippets of information to create a coherent story of his life.


I welcome your thoughts, questions, and suggestions about what you read in these blogs, and wish you all a fruitful 2015.

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Using Your Senses to Uncover Your Family History, Part Two: Sniffing Out Emotions

By Pam Pacelli


As a junior in high school, I was given an assignment to write about a deeply pleasurable experience. Immediately, I recalled to the joy of baking sugar cookies with my grandmother in her kitchen but—try as I might—I could not describe the glorious smells of the newly baked cookies. Frustrated, I placed a drop of vanilla extract on the paper, hoping that when my English teacher smelled it, he would be able to share my experience.


“Miss Pacelli,” he wrote on the essay, “ In future, could you take care not to spill grease on your work before turning it in.” Mission aborted.


Smell is the only sense that has a direct line to the emotions. A scent travels immediately to the olfactory cortex, which is embedded deep within the limbic system of the brain, our emotional center. Smell evokes direct memories from our earliest childhood in a way that sound, sight, hearing and touch do not.
Here is what Natalie Angier, a science writer for the New York Times had to say in her article on smell, published in August 2008:


…Maria Larsson, an associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, described the power of smell to serve as an almost magical time machine, with potential for treating dementia, depression, the grim fog of age…Studying groups of Swedes whose average age was 75, the researchers offered three different sets of the same 20 memory cues — the cue as a word, as a picture and as a smell. The scientists found that while the word and visual cues elicited associations largely from subjects’ adolescence and young adulthood, the smell cues evoked thoughts of early childhood, under the age of 10. And despite the comparative antiquity of such memories, Dr. Larsson said, people described them in exceptionally rich and emotional terms, and they were much likelier to report the sudden sensation of being brought back in time.


So how do we use this intense and immediate sense in our work as personal historians? We can’t put a dollop of vanilla on the pages of our books or on a DVD case, but we can ask questions that will help our subjects unlock olfactory memories. For instance, someone who grew up in a crowded urban environment: What was the first thing you remember smelling when went out the door on your way to school? Or, for someone who grew up on a farm: what were the first smells you remember on your parents’ farm?


Of course, as personal historians, we need to vet our clients before we ask these deeply evocative questions: someone who was a child in a labor camp or is a refugee from a war is not a good candidate for these kinds of questions.


For many of our clients, though, being “nose-y” may lead them back into their own personal time machine.

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