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University of Michigan School of Information


Pass it on: Study examines family memory traditions

Tuesday, 05/22/2018

A young woman’s grandfather told her about the time he broke his arm after jumping from a big barn. She was shocked.

Why would anyone jump out of a barn? Of course he broke his arm. It could have been worse, right?

Not exactly. Turns out Grandpa failed to mention he was jumping onto bales of hay. He assumed his granddaughter knew that because, in his day, everyone jumped out of barns onto hay bales. He only broke his arm because “he missed the hay a little bit.”

This story illustrates how a family tale can be misunderstood due to the simple fact that two generations separate the teller and receiver of the tale. 

It’s one of many family memory traditions detailed in a University of Michigan School of Information study, “Co-constructing Family Memory: Understanding the Intergenerational Practices of Passing on Family Stories.”

The study examined ways families share and preserve memories across generations – as well as across cities, states and continents. This includes “contested” memories – when family members don’t agree on a particular family memory, such as one family group that argued over its Irish descent, and another on whether or not an ancestor served in the Civil War. 

Insight from these analyses helped identify design challenges for multi-lifespan information systems. 

The research was inspired “by personal and professional curiosity,” says UMSI PhD student Jasmine Jones, principal investigator who led the project and her faculty advisor, UMSI Professor Mark Ackerman. 

She discovered research about building ‘technology heirlooms,’ which were ornate wooden boxes designed to hold digital media – such as a collection of photos or someone's Twitter archive. 

“At the same time, I was trying to gather genealogies and stories about my family from my aunt, mother and grandparents. But it was hard to get them to talk in depth about their lives. I figured there should be a new tool that would make capturing and listening to these stories easier.”

Family memory is crucial, the authors wrote, because “memories of our family ground and guide us in our everyday lives. Memory influences our identity, sense of belonging in the world and ways we relate to events.”

Family stories, they continued, also “create a sense of collective identity and connection across multiple generations.”

When families are not face-to-face, handing on memories requires written memoirs, audio-recorded narratives, and, more recently, digital storytelling and online oral history platforms such as StoryCorps or 

But these platforms don’t fully support the intricacy of multi-generation family storytelling and preservation, the authors noted. 

For the study, the researchers interviewed young and older adult “tellers” and “listeners” who actively pursue their collective family memories. Researchers examined how family storytelling actually happens, and how storytellers’ and listeners’ roles “are fluid and interconnected,” so that they essentially co-construct their family collective memories.

The desire to pass on family stories comes from a sense of duty, either to future family members or to oneself. Older adults especially feel an obligation to pass on their knowledge to younger generations. 

One mother expressed the importance of family memories from, “even five generations back” which have “an effect on your life today….I do think it’s important that future generations know who you were, how you thought, how you lived….”

A key challenge for transmitting multigenerational stories is “translating” stories from earlier times or different locations. 

For example, current generations may not recognize the vernacular or frames of reference of previous generations. Context also matters – hence the barn-jumping misunderstanding. 

Another barrier to understanding family lore can be actual translation, such as old diaries written in other languages that no current family member can decipher. 

Finally, stories told and retold by family members over time are changed “as people add their own flair,” significant details are left out, added or misinterpreted, the study noted. This often requires a certain kind of translation. 

But, Jones noted, “I was surprised that it was just as challenging for the storytellers as it was for the listeners.” They struggled to write down memoirs or record videos, uncertain how future generations would react to these efforts.

The U-M team used the results of these interviews to recommend, as the study described, three “critical design features for information systems which support multi-generational interactions.” 

Systems must navigate co-constructive interactions from multiple family participants; facilitate communication with unknown listeners; and preserve interpretive signals that help aid in understanding shared information.

The study, Ackerman says “is part of a larger set of investigations that will examine how family, and other forms of collective memory can be augmented through new computational devices.”

It’s key to record stories, but also why they were told a certain way, Jones says. “Preserving the what and the why/how of preserved information could help future listeners understand stories in a deeper way,” Jones says.

“A family story is not just information in a narrative format, it is an expression of someone's personality, the result of someone's agenda, and even a gift.”


Sheryl James, UMSI PR Specialist