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Genealogy Info

Tips for Recording Oral Histories

When you record an oral history, remember that you're an interested relative, not a hard-nosed reporter. Recording an oral history should be an enjoyable experience for everyone involved, and you're more likely to get good results if that's the case. Below are a few tips:

1. Schedule the oral history session in advance. Don't just show up on a person's doorstep unexpectedly.

2. Bring a tape recorder, or pen and paper, or both. If you want to use a tape recorder, make sure you get prior permission from the person you're interviewing. You may want to take a few notes even if you use a tape recorder, perhaps to get the correct spellings of places and people's names or as a backup in case the record malfunctions. If you use a tape recorder, be sure to test the recorder as well as the tape to make sure that each is working.

3. Make sure you record the date and location of the interview, as well as the name of the interviewer and the interviewee.

4. Ask questions to start things off, but don't be afraid to let the person you're interviewing talk "off the subject." You may get some of the best stories this way. If they really start rambling, gently steer them back to your questions.

5. Don't push for answers. If you're asking questions that seem to make the person uncomfortable, ask if they want to continue or if they would rather talk about something else.

6. If you ask "when" something happened, the answer will often be "I don't know, " because the individual doesn't recall the exact date or year. Instead of asking "when," ask the question in relation to another event. For example, did an event take place before or after the individual got married, or before or after the individual's parents died? You can also begin the question with "About how old were you when..." Using these techniques, you're more likely to get answers.

7. If you have any old pictures or other items that you have questions about, bring them along. You may get answers to your questions, and you will probably hear some good stories, too.

8. Keep the session relatively short, no more than one or two hours. Recording an oral history should be fun, not hard work. You can schedule another session at a later date if you want to continue recording the oral history.

Suggested Topics and Questions for Oral Histories

Below are some sample topics and questions that you can use when you record oral histories. Don't limit yourself to our suggestions, however. Every family is unique, and you can probably think of some special things to talk about. Make sure you get down the name and birth date of the person you're interviewing, as well as where they fit in your family tree. Then, choose any of the topics below and begin asking questions.

* What do you recall about your childhood?
* Where did you live and go to school?
* What do you remember best about your parents?
* What did you and your siblings do in your spare time?
* Were you an obedient child or a mischievous child?
* What styles of clothing did children wear then?

Family Traditions
* Did your family have any special traditions, such as things that they did on holidays or birthdays?
* What about family heirlooms? Is there anything that's been handed down from generation to generation?

Growing Up
* When did you leave home?
* Why did you leave and where did you go?
* How did your life change? Did you feel grown up? Were you a little scared?

Historical Events
* Which significant historical events have taken place during your lifetime?
* Were there wars, natural disasters, or political changes?
* How did these events affect you?

* What was the name of the place where you grew up?
* Was it a big city or a small town?
* Were there any special activities or festivals at different times during the year?

* How old were you when you immigrated to the United States?
* Were did you come from and where and when did you arrive?
* How did you travel? By boat, plane, or train? How long did the trip take?
* What feelings did you have about coming to the United States? What was one of the biggest differences between the United States and your previous home?

* What did your parents do for a living when you were growing up? Did you ever help them out?
* Was your family financially comfortable?
* What was your first job? How old were you at the time? How did you get your job?
* What different jobs have you had during your life?

Physical Characteristics
* What physical characteristics do people in your family share?
* Do they all have the same hair color or eye color?
* Whom in the family do you resemble?

Previous Generations
* Did you know your grandparents or great-grandparents?
* What were their names?
* Where did they live?
* What stories can you tell about them and their lives?

* What part did religion play in your family?
* Were you very religious?
* Did you go to religious services on a regular basis?

Other Possible Topics
Education, Politics, Military Service, Recreation, Entertainers of the Era, Family Personalities, Family Pets, Traveling, Dating, Clothing, Family Recipes, Favorite Songs or Poems, Family Medical History, Marriage and Raising a Family, and anything else that may be of interest to you and your family.

First Steps -- Family History Begins at Home

by Genealogy.com

So you've decided to dig into your family history. Congratulations! Genealogy is a fulfilling pastime, one that can bring a real sense of accomplishment and understanding to you and your loved ones. If you are new to the hobby, it may seem a bit overwhelming at first, with all of the traditional and online resources available. So let's step back a bit from the microfilms and computer programs and start with the basics.
Whether you're recording your family history on paper or on the computer, it's best to gather as much information as you can first. That way, when it comes time to get everything organized and written down or entered into the computer, you will have enough information at your fingertips to create a fairly solid tree of several generations.

There are four main sources of family information at this beginning stage:
* In your house (or in relatives' houses)
* Your own knowledge of family events
* Interviews with family members
* Previous research done by other people

Let's take a look at each of these in turn to see what it can contribute to completing the puzzle of your family's history.

Search the House
Your own house (or a relative's house) can be an amazing source of family history information if you know where to look. Heirlooms, gifts, and papers can give you valuable clues about your ancestors and events in their lives.

When you're looking for information at home, you may find items that are dated, but don't have years. For example, "Thursday, March 8." This is especially true with diaries, letters, and clippings found in scrapbooks. Sometimes you can figure out the year by context, or you can use a perpetual calendar. For letters, be sure to check the postmark for a date, as well as the letter.

Below is a list of household items and places where you may find genealogical information. You can probably think of a few others. Ask your relatives if they have or know of any items like these that might be useful to your research.

* Autograph books
* Bibles
* Books (check for inscriptions in them)
* Certificates (from schools or jobs)
* Closet doors (look for writing on the inside)
* Clothing and hats
* Cookbooks
* Diaries and day books
* Family trees
* Furniture (sometimes you'll find names and dates on the bottoms or backs of furniture)
* Photo albums
* Important papers (wills, titles, and deeds)
* Jewelry (such as pins, ID bracelets, charm bracelets, lockets, or anything else that may have an inscription or indicate membership in an organization)
* Letters
* Newspaper clippings
* Pictures (don't forget to look at the backs)
* School papers (report cards can have parents' signatures)
* Scrapbooks
* Sewing samplers, quilts, and other handmade items
* Trunks and chests
* Yearbooks

Memories...Like the Corners of Your Mind
One of the best ways to start your family tree is simply to write down all of the basic information (birth, marriage, and death dates and locations) you know about your relatives, as far back as you can go. Start with yourself or your children, and then work backwards through the generations as far back as you can.

While such a list needs to be supported by documentation before you share it with other researchers, it's unbeatable as a starting point for your own research. By writing it all down, you will see quickly where you have missing or conflicting pieces of information. You will also get a sense of where you might want to begin looking up records or writing away for documents.

Once you've made your list, ask your living relatives for any information they may have. This is especially important for the older members of the family, as they often have information about people who are long gone. In many U.S. families, the oldest living generation is also the one which immigrated to the U.S. or was the first-born after immigration. Your parents or grandparents may have some memory of the "old country" or at least some passed-down stories to share.

Questions, So Many Questions
The next step to take when trying to fill in the blanks is to do more formal oral history interviews with your relatives. These go beyond the basic facts to family stories, memories, and interactions with the world at large. It's interesting to see how they can all tie together — for instance, your mother might remember where she was living at age 13 because there was a parade for Dwight Eisenhower in town that year, and then describe the house and what she was like at that age. You will likely get many family stories that can add great depth to your family's history beyond the names, dates, and places. Having this real sense of an ancestor is one of the greatest gifts the hobby has to offer.

There are many ways to go about interviewing a relative: you may choose to record the interview or only take notes, to ask open-ended questions or for specific information, and so on. The most important things to remember are to be respectful of the person you're interviewing and to make careful notes or a transcription of your tape as soon after the interview as possible.

Take the Road Already Traveled
One thing to keep in mind is that you might not be the only person researching your family. If you already know of someone who's working on the family tree, by all means contact them and see if they would be willing to share what they've found. While you probably will still want to verify the information you find, discovering what's already been researched can save you a lot of time and frustration.

In addition to sources within your close family, it often happens that a more distant relative is working on the family tree, perhaps from a different angle or following a line to a distant common ancestor. You may find that they have published their research in various public forums, such as the Ancestral File or the World Family Tree. Most of these forums have contact information for the people who have submitted research to them, so if you search in one of these services and find a match to part of your family tree, you can often write to the contributor directly and begin to share information.

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