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
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
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?
* 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?
* 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?
* 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
* 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
* 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
* 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
* What different jobs have you had during your life?
* 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?
* 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
First Steps -- Family History Begins at Home
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
* Autograph books
* Books (check for inscriptions in them)
* Certificates (from schools or jobs)
* Closet doors (look for writing on the inside)
* Clothing and hats
* Diaries and day books
* Family trees
* Furniture (sometimes you'll find names and dates on the bottoms or backs
* 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)
* Newspaper clippings
* Pictures (don't forget to look at the backs)
* School papers (report cards can have parents' signatures)
* Sewing samplers, quilts, and other handmade items
* Trunks and chests
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
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 ‚Äî
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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