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May’s topic is oral history and interviews. It is important to talk to those family members who remember farther back than you do. They may know something you don’t and during a chat may reveal a tidbit that only they know.
Don’t push the person you are interviewing to answer a question. Sometimes there might be a secret that they don’t want to divulge. It might be something that you don’t see as scandalous but they do.
A book that I have found useful is “How to Tape Instant Oral Biographies Recording Your Family’s Life Story in Sound and Sight” by Bill Zimmerman. It was published for the first time in 1979 and I have a reprint from 1992. They talk about using camcorders and audio tapes but you can update those to digital audio recorders, pocket camcorders and smart phones.
You can find an online step-by-step guide to oral history here.
Make a list of family members that you would like to interview and the reason why you want to interview them. While compiling this list you may come up with the names of others you would like to interview.
Create a list of open ended questions that will help you discover more about your family history. Don’t be too specific with your questions. Sometimes a more general question can bring forth more information.
You may have to do the interview over several visits. You might have to spread them out and not do them on consecutive days.
It is always nice to bring a little something as a thank you. When I did interviews on the history of Trafalgar Township I brought everyone a small bag of homemade shortbread. It was something that didn’t take much time and was appreciated. You are showing you appreciate them taking time to talk to you.
If you have pictures or other memorabilia relating to the family bring it along to help the conversation. Sometimes a picture can jog a memory and then the conversation can go in a different direction and provide you with information you didn’t know about.
When you confirm the date of the interview you can mention some of the topics that you are interested in learning more about so that they can think about it before you arrive.
Texas A&M have a web page called “Oral History: Techniques and Questions” which provides a starting point.
The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has an interviewing guide in PDF that you can download.
Discover Nikkei “Japanese Migrants and their Descendants” has a web page that provides a guide to doing your own oral history interview. It starts with the equipment and there are videos to help you along. On the right hand side of the page are some interviews you might find interesting.
When you have finished the interview make a transcription of the audio. It will make it easier to reference in the future.
Remember to make extra copies of the interview and store them in different places.
Ask the interviewee if they would like you to give copies of the interview to their children. They might appreciate it.
Don’t put the interview online without the express permission of the interviewee. They may not want their interview made public.
Tell the person you are interviewing what you want to do with the information they share with you.
You may find they will talk to you but do not want to be recorded in any way. You will have to do it the old fashioned way and take notes.
You may want to ask the person you interviewed if they would permit you to share their interview with the local history society in the place where they grew up. This is the sort of thing that local history societies love to have in their collections as it provides first hand accounts of life in their town.
When you are researching your family history think about sourcing oral histories to help you with background research.
The local historical society may have recorded or have transcriptions of interviews with life time residents of the town where your family lived. They may mention your ancestor and will provide wonderful background information you can use in your family history.
Oral history recordings of war veterans provide you with an idea of what your ancestor might have gone through during war time, especially if it was someone who was fighting on the same battlefield.
Don’t just think about the oral histories of war veterans that fought on the side of your ancestor also think about those who fought on the other side. This could provide a new dimension to your family history.
Oral history is not only something that you can do with regards to your own personal family history. You could interview war veterans and share the interview with people on the many websites where you can listen to war veteran interviews. Library and Archives Canada have audio interviews with First World War veterans on their website.
You could volunteer at your local historical society to interview people who have spent a life time in your town. It might not have any connection to your family history but you will learn something new about where you currently live.
While you are thinking about gathering oral histories from other people please don’t forget about your own oral history. What a wonderful legacy to leave your family.
Creating your own oral history is easy as you know what questions you will answer and you can create a script before you start the camera or digital recorder. You could use pictures and memorabilia on screen or scan them and create a multi media presentation.
If you want to take it further there are Oral History Associations you can join to learn more.
If you do not want to do it yourself there are people who do it professionally. The Association of Personal Historians can provide you with more information.
Are there people you want to interview in your family? Don’t put it off, start today.
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