With the advent of inexpensive digital voice recorders, it is now possible to make a direct digital recording of your relatives’ stories and family history. Digital voice recorders are so small and unobtrusive that they can be carried in a pocket and used when the opportunity arises. But before you sit down with a relative to record a life history or talk about family events, it is vitally important that you are prepared. Fortunately, there are lots of online resources, some with detailed outlines, to help with gathering your oral history. The equipment needed to capture an oral history is minimal; a digital voice recorder and a digital camera. You could get more elaborate and do a full-blown video recording, but likely you will have to do some convincing with older relatives.
To begin to understand the terminology and references to equipment used in making audio recordings, it is a good idea to review a glossary of the terms used in digital oral histories. Here is a link to the Glossary for Digital Oral History (PDF file) from the Baylor University, Institute for Oral History.
Before you get out your voice recorder and push the record button, you just may wish to take some time in preparation. There are some tried and true procedures that will make any oral history a lot more interesting and relevant. It is also important to plan how you are going to preserve the files after they are on your computer. So making a successful oral history involves four steps:
- Pre-production preparation and planning
- Conducting the interview
- Processing the audio files
- Preserving and distributing copies
The very first step is acquiring a suitable digital voice recorder and learning how to use it. When you are sitting down for an interview is not a good time to try to learn how your recording device operates. You do not want to spend an hour or two talking to your relative only to find out you never pushed the record button. A good online place to start in your preparation for doing an oral history is the Oral History Association (OHA) website. The OHA recommends using the “best digital recording recording equipment within their means to reproduce the narrator’s voice accurately.” See Best Practices for Oral History. The OHA also recommends that the interviewer contact an appropriate repository that has the resources to preserve the histories. I find this to be a viable alternative. If you are serious about making the history available to future family members, seeking a repository, such as a historical society, university library or archive or other similar institutional conservator is important. You can also use the Internet Archive to “store” your audio files. If you are going to preserve the files in a public institution, you should be concerned about any privacy issues that may arise from the content of the interview. Here are several online resources concerning making audio recordings:
- Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC)
- Audio Engineering Society (AES)
- Council on Library and Information Resources. CLIR pub 137—Capturing Analog Sound for Digital Preservation: Report of a Roundtable Discussion of Best Practices for Transferring Analog Discs and Tapes. National Recording Preservation Board, Library of Congress
You should also be well prepared with an outline of topics that you want to cover. I suggest doing your “homework,” that is, becoming familiar with the background of the prospective interviewee and having a basic understanding of the members of their family. That way, during the interview, you will recognize the people mentioned and may be able to gather more information than you would have otherwise. Here are some websites to get started:
- Step-by-step Guide to Oral History
- What is oral history?
- Oral History from The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Kindred Keepsakes Memory Book Questions
- An Oral History Primer from the University of California at Santa Cruz, University Library
- Oral History Program of the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church
- Family Oral History Using Digital Tools
- Fundamentals of Oral History (PDF file) from the Texas Historical Commission
If you review these and similar websites, you will soon see that there is a common consensus concerning the methodology to be used in oral interviews. Some oral historians advocate letting the interviewee tell his or her own story by suggesting topics rather than asking questions, others suggest going to the interview with a complete script of questions to ask. Your style should reflect your personal manner and also allow the person to be interviewed the latitude to tell the story rather than reply to a series of questions.
Once you have the audio file on your recorder, it is time to transfer the file to your computer. To quote from the Baylor University, Institute for Oral History document, Archiving Digital Oral History (PDF file),
Digital technology has eliminated the distinction between the creation of oral history and the preservation and management of it. Information systems must now be at the heart of the oral history enterprise, and attention to data management must begin at the moment the digital recorder is configured, even before actual recording begins. Without careful design and management of data digital oral histories cannot survive in any useful way or for any length of time.
Part of the digital record for a oral history should be digital images (photographs) of the location of the interview and the person being interviewed. It will also be helpful to have a picture of the person conducting the interview. Unless the interview is being conducted by means of a video recording, it is also very helpful to have images of any artifacts mentioned in the interview. It is also important to attach descriptive metadata, that is, information about the interview and the subject, and incorporate that information into the digital file. You can find a good introduction to this concept in the Japanese American Legacy Project’s video production called “Making Sense of Metadata: A Practical Overview for Oral Historians.” Audio editing programs also allow the entry of metadata in addition to the technical metadata generated automatically as the digital recording process is completed. An open source, free software program for adding metadata to your audio files is Audacity, which is available for Mac, Windows and Linux operating systems.
Once you have the files on your computer, your job has just begun. You still need to distribute the files to other interested relatives and find a permanent repository location for the audio files.This article was written by James Tanner
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