“Mom, is that REALLY great-grandpa’s voice?”
One of the best gifts that you can give yourself and your family is something that’s not expensive, but one day will be priceless: an oral history with older family members. For those of us interested in homesteading, sustainable living, or history, knowledge about agriculture and early 20th Century-style thriftiness is invaluable. For the gift-giver on a budget, a transcribed oral history or a video-interview on DVD makes an inexpensive yet meaningful present for family members.
And nothing will help our future grandchildren and great-grandchildren connect with their ancestors as much as seeing them in action or hearing their stories.
This isn’t a difficult challenge. At the most basic level, it requires only a willing interviewee, a little time, and some recording equipment or a pen and a piece of paper.
If you’ve been putting this off, perhaps this post will give you some pointers and the encouragement you need to start. Perhaps you might be even more ambitious and begin an oral history project at a local nursing home, library, or senior citizens’ center.
As an archivist/museum curator, I conducted dozens of oral histories. Here are a few pointers to help you get organized.
Be prepared for the person to wonder why such a fuss about them. Many people have no idea that their life-experiences and knowledge are valuable and interesting.
Choose a recording medium that won’t intimidate your interviewee. Being videotaped is intimidating to some people; more people will agree to being voice-recorded. Some will only agree to have you make notes. If you’re lucky, your interviewee may have a literary bent and agree to write his or her own memoirs!
Formulate a list of questions before you arrive, and introduce yourself on tape. We often began our interviews like this: “My name is Mother Duck and today, July 8, 2013, I’m interviewing my grandmother, Mrs. Ima Duck, at her home in Nowhere, Texas.” After an introduction like this, you can start asking easy, factual questions that make the interviewee comfortable. Some of the questions you’ll want to cover are:
What is your full name?
What was your mother’s/father’s name?
Who were your brothers and sisters?
Where did you live?
Where did you go to school?
When/where did you get married?
What was your spouse’s full name?
Often, especially with family members, you may find that you’ll go off on a tangent and learn some very interesting information. Your grandmother may remember an incident that happened at school, or stories that her own grandparents told.
Focus the Interview. In some cases, you may want to interview someone about a particular skill or event, such as your grandmother’s method for smoking bacon, or your grandfather’s experiences in Korea. If this is the case, then after the basic introduction and questions, you can steer the interview in this direction. At times, you may want to take a photo or artifact for the interviewee to discuss.
Check your recording equipment before you arrive. If you’re traveling a distance, or if you have to set up an appointment to talk with someone, double-check your recording devices. It never hurts to have a backup recording method, either. Carry a power cord if you need one, but NEVER assume you’ll have access to electricity. Carry extra batteries. Also be sure that your recording device has plenty of memory.
Take a camera. It’s always a good idea to take a photo of the person, if possible, on the day the interview was conducted. In other cases, the person might be willing to supply a photo that you could copy. For interviews about a particular skill, you will probably want to videotape the activity or assemble a photographic essay along the lines of those found in the Foxfire books.
Be mindful of the time. Some interviews last two or more hours with everyone still going strong, but often the interviewee will become tired after an hour or an hour-and-a-half. Be mindful of this. In some cases it’s best to stop the interview and come back on another day, if possible.
Use discretion if you get “too much information.” Sometimes, for the sake of family peace, you may have to transcribe the interview and edit out certain information.
If you are going to publish the interview, especially of a non-relative, consider getting a signed release form. If the person is a relative, or the interview is only for your personal use, this usually isn’t necessary.
Don’t wait until your loved ones have passed away or are no longer able to give an interview. Oral histories are a fairly easy, inexpensive way to preserve your family’s heritage. Your children and other descendants will one day thank you.