Michael John Neill – 6/4/2003
Summer, along with family trips and reunions, is quickly approaching. This week we take a short look at obtaining oral information from relatives. While its accuracy is sometimes questionable, for most of us oral history is a great starting point to our family history. Even for those of us who've been researching for some time, there still are questions we probably need to ask. All family historians would do well to remember that oral history, when it still exists only in a person's mind, is the most fragile family history source we have.
An excellent way to preserve the interview (at least for the short term) is to record the interview on audio or videotape. While a transcription should be made, the tape frees the interviewer from taking copious notes during the interview.
Tips for Recording Oral Histories
1. Schedule the oral history session in advance. This gives the person time to reflect, and hopefully to remember more detail. It also gives the person time to locate family materials in their home.
2. Bring an audio or video recorder, and a pen or pencil and paper. If you want to use a recording device, make sure you get permission from the person you're interviewing before you show up on their doorstep, camera in hand. Take some notes even if you record the interview (you may need to refer to them during the interview if nothing else) and practice using the recorder before the interview.
3. Bring a list of questions in advance and consider sending some of them to the interviewee in advance as well. If you're taking notes on paper, leave space for the answers or number the questions and then number the answers on a separate sheet. You can also take notes on a laptop computer as long as your typing skills are sufficient.
4. Don't be afraid to let the interviewee get off the subject. You may get unexpected good stories this way. If necessary, gently steer your interviewee in the right direction if their digression has truly taken them far afield.
5. Don't push for answers. This may only aggravate the person and cause them to cease answering questions.
6. If it is clear that a question has upset the interviewee, back off. You might have inadvertently brought up a family skeleton. Unless you are trying to solve your great-grandfather's unsolved murder, remember that you are not conducting a police interrogation.
7. Exact dates can be difficult to remember. Try to have the person put the event in perspective relative to other events in their life—their marriage, the death of a parent, a war, etc. Forcing them to guess at dates is not in your best interest and approximate dates within the context of a chronology can perhaps be pinned down later with other records and historical sources.
8. When contacting the person, ask if they have any old pictures or family mementos. Bring along any you have as well. These may be fodder for additional conversation.
9. Keep the session reasonably short. Three hours at one sitting is probably too much. Send the person a follow-up thank you note, enclosing an SASE in case they care to jot anything else down and send it to you.
10. Consider taking a scanner or a digital camera. This may be an excellent way to make copies of photographs or documents that your interviewee may not wish to leave their house.
Avoid getting overly personal. There are some things a person would like to take to their grave with them.
Suggested Questions—Just to Get You Started
Immigration (if relevant)
Earlier family members
Other Possible Topics
Education, Politics, Military Service, Recreation, Family Pets, Traveling, Dating, Clothing, Family Recipes, Family Medical History, Marriage and Raising a Family, and just about anything else that is of interest to family members. Remember that the impact of national and regional events on the lives of your family members can bring out excellent information as well.
Some Additional Thoughts:
No Leading Questions
Do not suggest the answer to the person answering the question. Questions like "Grandma was born in Ohio wasn't she?" can easily be answered "yes" when the person is actually not certain. Your goal is to get at an accurate rendering of what the person remembers. Asking for clarification to something you misunderstood is fine, suggesting an answer is not.
Hopefully the courthouse, the library, and the cemetery will be around for a while. Grandma might not be. If she has information in her head you haven't tried to get out, make an effort. Now I have a few relatives myself I need to interview, including a few first cousins of my parents and grandparents. Don't forget the "shirttail" kin as well.