Oral Personal History

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History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.(Kurt Vonnegut)

Recording Personal Histories from Friends and Relatives You may have relatives or friends whose life story you’d love to have. You may feel that their stories, as well as your own should be given to your descendents. If your parents or grandparents haven’t written theirs yet, you’ll certainly want to get them too.

However, as much you try to encourage them to write their personal histories, they may not be very willing to do so. Interviewing them with a voice recorder or camcorder may be your only option.

I would very much encourage you to use some kind of digital camcorder rather than just recording the voice. With a video recording, you can include pictures, old family films, voice recordings of other people, background music and even narration if you want.

Here are some do’s and don’ts on the recording of personal histories either for yourself or others. These ideas also apply if you are using a camcorder.

Before the Interview[edit | edit source]

When making arrangements for the interview, let the person know what time period or what subjects you will cover but not in detail. This preparations allows the mind to start searching its memory banks to get memories a little closer to the surface.

Be careful not to give them the exact questions you’ll be asking. Giving them the questions ahead of time has a tendency to reduce spontaneity and create set answers.

You’ll want to capture other memories that are almost always triggered by spontaneous responses. Besides, it is fun to watch the person’s eyes as the memories start to come back.

Know Your Equipment[edit | edit source]

  • Know your equipment well and make sure it is working that day. There is nothing more unnerving to your interviewee, than seeing you fumble with your machine trying to figure out why it is not working.

  • Have extra disks. Make sure you have extras batteries, if you will not have power available.

  • Use headphones that plug into the recorder so you can to listen to see if the machine is receiving the voice of your interviewee. You will know extreme frustration, if you have had a wonderful interview and then find the machine was not recording correctly or the volume was so low that you can’t hear anything.

Where To Record[edit | edit source]

  • First of all, try to record in the person’s own home. They will feel much more at ease than in a recording studio.

  • Next, select a quiet room to record in. Keep away from the front of the house where the street is. Stay away from rooms where the TVs or a radio is playing. Keep away from the kitchen where appliances can come on at any time. Keep windows closed to keep out noises from the neighbors.

  • And have a couple of comfortable chairs facing each other to sit on.

Start The Interview Right A Way[edit | edit source]

Set up your recording machine as soon as you arrive. Don’t engage in small talk before you turn on the machine. There may be some things in the small talk that should be recorded.
To start, put the person at ease by asking some opened ended questions like:

  • ”How are you feeling today?”

  • ” Have you been looking forward to this?”

  • “Are you nervous?”

  • ”Do you have any questions before we start?”

Hopefully they will be loosened up by the time you get to the real interview. Be sure to have the recorder on even with these questions. You might learn something here too.

Have a list of questions to ask[edit | edit source]

Here is a list of 1800 possible questions you can use in the interview. Just so I'll know I have filled 10 -12 hours of recording if the person was old enough to go through all the questions.

Be A Good Listener[edit | edit source]

  • Don’t talk or interrupt while the person is speaking.

  • Don’t put words in their mouths.

  • Don’t finish their sentences for them either.

  • Let them speak until they have completed their thought before you go on to the next question.

  • Allow their personality to come through on the recording, it is just as valuable as anything they may say.

  • Might be valuable to take notes on items that you feel need more detail.

Think About The Next Question[edit | edit source]

  • In the interview, be flexible enough to think of additional questions as suggested by the answers the person is giving you. He or she may bring just touch on an event that you think should be gone into greater detail.

  • A good interviewer is a good listener and will be making sure that the answers are clear and complete. Again, they will be on the look out for answers that should be elaborated on.

Wandering From the Topic[edit | edit source]

  • If the interviewee starts to deviate from the topic, don’t worry to much about it. These wanderings sometimes yield more interesting material than the answer to the question at hand.

  • But, be sure to get back to the original question.

Controversies[edit | edit source]

  • If the person wants your reaction to what he is saying, especially if it is controversial, tell them you are here to interview them not exchange views.

  • Its their personal views that the listener is interested in not yours, the interviewer.

Don’t Try To Complete All Interviews In One Sitting[edit | edit source]

  • I advise you to keep your interviews to no more than a couple of hours unless the person feels otherwise. People get tired after a while of talking.

  • Plan on several sessions.

Editing Out The Interviewer[edit | edit source]

  • Try to get the interviewee to use the question as part of the answer in order to be able to edit out the interviewer if wanted. For example, instead of the interviewee answering the question when they were born, with just the date, get them to say instead, “I was born on April 24, 1941.”

  • When you put these statements together, it does sounds like a continuous narrative. In this way, the voice of the interviewer can be edited out if they don’t want it in the recording.

Get Help If Recording Yourself[edit | edit source]

  • Now, if you’ve decided to record your personal history and think that talking to yourself would feel a bit strange, you’re right. I tried it myself and I felt very self conscience even thought I enjoy intelligent conversation. You might, therefore, consider having someone interview you.

  • One advantage to doing this is if your answer seems unclear to them, they can ask for more information or at least have you say it in other words. If it is someone who knows you or the time period, they might think of things that you should included.

Check Out What Is Said If It Doesn’t Seem Right[edit | edit source]

  • If something said in the interview that did not sound right or maybe was no true, don’t be afraid to check it out with other people who may have been a witness to the events described.

  • You may even have to check out official records such as wills, birth, etc.

Transcribe The Interview[edit | edit source]

  • Please consider transcribing the interview. The main reason is to give the interviewee a chance to see what he or she said in the interview and if they have second thoughts about anything they said. They may want you to take out things they feel are better left unsaid now that they have a chance to think about it.

  • In addition, the transcription gives them a chance to see where they might want to enlarge on an event described. As I’ve mentioned before, the subconscious mind might come up with some more details. The person can decide if they want to included them or after reading what they said the first time, come to the conclusion the existing answer was good enough.

  • Then there is the just the fact that here is something which is easier to review than a recording. Areas that need more details or explanation can be marked for additional research. This is hard to do on a recording.

Voice Recognition Software[edit | edit source]

If creating a transcript seems like a difficult task, the computer and do it for you. Transcribing in the computer age is easy today.
Years ago you had to listen to a sentence or two and then type what was said, then go to the next two or three. This took a lot of time. Now, however, you can get computer software that will convert the voice recording to the printed page.

These transcribing computer programs are called “Voice Recognition” software. When you get back to your computer, you download the recording and the voice recognition software produces a printed copy of the interview.

If you should have a lap-top computer with you during the interview, you can see the words appear on the screen as the interviewee is speaking. If you had a printer with you, you could print a copy of the interview right then and there. These programs are wonder but they are not perfect. There will always be some words that the computer just could not make out and so you may have to go over the recording to figure out what was said.

In addition, you will probably have to do a small amount of editing. There are always, sentence fragments to complete, unfinished sentences to either remove or figure out what they were trying to say, and stamerings to get rid of. In short you’ll have some clean-up of the text to make it more readable.

Again, you can circle those areas that may need to be clarified.

Preserve Recordings[edit | edit source]

I would urge you to have your recording transferred to a CD.

Keep Recordings Safe[edit | edit source]

Regardless of what you record on, keep your copies in a secure place where they can’t be damaged by nature, man or beast. Make additional copies and keep them in other locations, like a relatives home, or in a safety deposit box. This is in case of fire or vandalism. Oh yes, label everything: who, when and where.

External Microphone[edit | edit source]

Most recorders are equipped with a built-in or a hand held microphone. I don’t use either one of them.

First, the built-in microphone produces a poor quality sound and will pick a lot of sounds in the room. Second, the hand held microphone can be intimidating to a lot of people.

They will have a hard time thinking and remembering when they have to talk into one. In addition, you’ll find that you’ll have to keep reminding them to hold it up to their mouth as the hand has a tendency to drop as the interview progresses.

For these reasons, I use a small microphone that clips to the lapel under the chin. By using a lapel microphone, the person soon forgets they have it on and will relax.

However, your machine has to have a jack for an external microphone. If your machine doesn’t have one, then you’ll have to make do. However, if you don’t have a machine and need to buy one, make sure that your new machine has an external microphone jack so you can use an external microphone. If you do buy a lapel microphone, be sure and get a long cord as well.

Digital Recorders[edit | edit source]

The digital age is here, folks. Recording machines are very small and record to an internal chip. They are able to hold many hours of recording material.

Your Personal History Can Be Preserved FOREVER[edit | edit source]

It occurred to me the other day when I was reading about saving pictures and video to a DVD or your voice to a CD, that your recorded personal history can now be preserved forever. The CD or DVD or whatever method of preservation you use, will make it possible for your recording to be passed down throughout the generations. I don’t think it is outlandish to think that a 30th great grand child of yours living in the 30th Century could see and hear you.
It would be the same thing as listening to an ancestor of yours who lived in the 10th century. Wouldn’t it be exciting to listen to or see an ancestor talk about his life who lived in the year 1000 AD? They didn’t have the technology then, but we do. Let’s use it.

See also[edit | edit source]

What to do with the genealogy and family history I collected