It is the stories of someone’s life, captured in their own words in their own voice – complete with their unique expressions, tone, and way of speaking. It is a treasure for future generations, another dimension to the photos, clippings and written records that usually make up a family history.
Capturing oral histories from members of your family can be an incredible bonding experience, teaches valuable communication skills and creates some great memories while you record (and learn from) the memories of past. This would be a great project for a teenager or older child to work on.
Determine your Purpose – In order to get the right story, you have to ask the right questions. What is your purpose for wanting to capture your family history? Is there a certain time period or event in your family history that you would like to focus on? Having a clear focus allows you to get a quality interview and helps both the interviewer and narrator (the person being interviewed) stay on track.
Do your Research – Take some time going through family pictures, documents, letters and anything else you can find. Develop a list of questions to ask during your interview. These should be open ended questions, ones that can’t be answered with a yes/no.
Gather your Equipment – a digital voice recorder, camera, pen and paper, and list of interview questions are what you need to conduct an interview. A video camera is a nice addition, as is a plate of freshly baked cookies or another favorite treat.
Hints and Tips for the Interview – Select a place for the interview that is comfortable and quiet. Usually the narrator’s home is the best. Test all your equipment before starting the interview to make sure everything is working properly. When you sit down to do the interview, chat for a while first to make sure everyone is at ease. Encourage your narrator to answer questions as if they were telling you a story. This cuts out a lot of the awkward pauses and breaks. As the interviewer, once you ask a question try not to interrupt (this is hard!) Instead, encoruage the narrator to continue through your body language, head nodding and no verbal cues. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or more details when you need to – but let the narrator tell their story.
Telling the Story – Once you have captured the interview, there are may ways you can share it. You can use the interview to create a story. This is what we do at our local museum. Instead of just transcribing word for word, which is a long and expensive process, we use the words from the interview and type a story with pictures included. You could make a multi-media presentation using the interview and a slideshow of pictures from the narrator’s life, you could compile interviews will several family members and turn it into a book. The very first person you should share with is the narrator themselves. Get them involved in the process and make sure they are okay with having the interview shared and that all of the facts and dates are accurate and that you didn’t leave anything out.
Keeping it Safe – You can never have too many copies backed up on different media. Print out a hard copy, make a disk, copy onto a flash drive and an external hard drive. There is nothing more heartbreaking that loosing a valued interview because a storage device fails. As technology changes and new ways of managing data become mainstream, make another copy.
For some more information on family history projects, and why I think this is such an important thing to do, please read my post on Remembrance Day.