Creating Oral Histories

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Family history interviews are a good way to capture memories before they are lost. They help you verify and preserve names and dates—the sort of information you would typically record on a family group sheet or pedigree chart. These interviews are also one of the best ways to preserve a wealth of stories, testimonies, thoughts, and feelings. The process of doing a family history interview is really very simple and you will learn it best by practicing. Most people feel very comfortable with it after only one or two interviews. This lesson will help you gain enough confidence to conduct your first interview. The information is general, and you should adapt it to your individual circumstances.

Whom to Interview

Your first task is to decide whom to interview and why. You may want to interview someone who can provide information about a particular ancestor. Or you may want to do more general interviews with perhaps your oldest living relative, another member of y our family, your town’s oldest resident, a neighbor, or anyone who may have ties to or information about your family. You should usually conduct interviews one on one. Some situations, however, such as extended family gatherings, may provide a unique opportunity to capture the memories of several people at one time. In this sort of situation, you might simply set up your video or tape recorder and introduce a discussion topic to the group, such as inviting them to share their favorite memories of Grandma. As the group shares their memories, individuals will tend to remember more than they would if they were interviewed alone. Keep in mind that you may not always be able to distinguish who is saying what on the recording on the group session, particularly if you only have an audio recording. And group noise may make parts of the interview inaudible. You can compensate for those disadvantages by using more than one recording device and by identifying the different voices as soon as possible after the recording session.

Expert Tip: Face-to-face interviews are usually the most effective. If the person you want to interview does not live close to you, however, a telephone interview is an alternative. See appendix A for information about various recording options.

Before the Interview

Once you have chosen one or more people to interview, you need to ask them if they are willing to be interviewed. Explain the purpose of your interview, and what you would like them to do. You could also explain what they will get from the interview, such as a tape recording and a transcription. If they agree to an interview, you can then follow these steps:

Make an Appointment After you have decided whom to interview and that person has agreed to be interviewed, arrange a place where you will both feel comfortable and a time when you will not feel rushed. You want to find a place with minimal distractions in which to hold the interview. The interviewee’s home is often a good place; it may have mementos or other objects that will spark the individual’s memory. One or two hours is generally enough time for an initial interview. Some people will tire easily, however, especially those who are elderly or ill, and several shorter interviews may be more effective.

Make a List of Questions to Ask The type of questions you ask at the beginning of the interview will establish a pattern for your entire interview, so you should plan carefully. The first question or two can be simple to set the interviewee at ease. But other early questions should get the interviewee talking. Once the person is talking, you should interrupt as little as possible. The flow of speech will often generate a series of memories that will build on each other. There are generally three kinds of questions you can ask.

• Open-Ended Questions. Usually the most successful interview comes when the interviewee discusses whatever is most important to him or her. You can lead an interviewee to discuss interests by asking open-ended questions, such as “What are your fondest memories of your mother?” or “How did you meet your husband?” or “What was your greatest challenge as a child?” These questions require more than one or two words to answer and will encourage the interviewee to talk. See appendix B for a list of sample questions.

• Direct Questions. A direct question evokes a short response, usually one or two words. Direct questions are appropriate if you seek specific information. For example, you might ask, “What year was Albert Smith born?” or “Who was his father?” This type of question can help you get good information, but it won’t generate the kinds of thoughts and memories that can come from an interview. They might be good introductory or concluding questions and they might help provide important contextual information, but a successful interview is usually built on openended questions. Even though the best interview arises from open-ended questions, you can make a list of direct questions you hope to have answered during the interview. Your interviewee may answer them without prompting during the course of the interview. If not, the last few minutes of an interview are a good time to ask a limited amount of direct questions.

• Object-Based Questions. Photos, objects, and heirlooms can serve as an interesting basis for interview questions. For example, during your interview you might show a photo and ask what your interviewee knows about the people in the photo. Be sensitive about the questions you ask. If you know a certain subject will be upsetting to the interviewee, avoid that subject or approach it carefully. Broach the subject only after you have developed sufficient rapport.

Arrange for Recording Equipment Expensive equipment is not required for oral history interviews. An inexpensive video or tape recorder and microphone are usually all you need. Test the equipment in advance to ensure that it works properly and that you know how to use it. High quality tapes will preserve your interview longer. You should also bring extra batteries or a power cord you can plug in the wall.

At the Interview

After the Interview


Additional Resources

Ideas for Teachers