Taking oral histories of your elders
by Teri Brown
e'd been telling the stories for years. When I was younger, it seemed as if I had far more important things to do then listen, but oftentimes they would catch me unawares and I would be swept up in the events and lives of people that I only vaguely knew or didn't know at all.
Some were delightful and some were dramatic, all were compelling. Maybe because they are my history too. Maybe because as my father related his stories of the depression or the war years I saw in them the stories of our country.
A few years ago he became aware of an urge to write down his stories. Perhaps the mid-eighties made him aware of his own mortality. Maybe he just didn't want the people he loved forgotten. At any rate, he struggled to get his thoughts on paper.
The best he could come up with was a very dry account of dates, places and names. Not what he had in mind at all. The project was shelved, but never really left his mind.
It wasn't until he, almost offhandedly, suggested that I write his history down that I gave it any thought. The idea fired my imagination. But how would I do it? Could I get him to open up to me any better then he did for a piece of paper? Perhaps getting it on tape instead of paper--at least initially--was the answer.
Planning an oral history project is an art, but I've discovered that if you pre-plan you can save a lot of time and energy. This should be a time of closeness for you and your family member(s); having the details worked out ahead of time can ease the path to openness.
Have clear objectives of the project. Are you looking for a family history or the personal history of one particular person? Who will be interviewed?
Do you plan on transcribing the tapes into written form or cataloging them as is? What do you plan on doing with the histories? Condensing some of the stories and selling them as short stories? Compiling a book for sale? Saving them for an heirloom only? Having these questions answered ahead of time will better help you prepare for the interview(s)
Equipment for taking an oral history
The equipment you use in taking an oral history is extremely important so make sure you have a well-working hand-held recorder. Imagine having the recorder quit just as some deep dark family secret was coming to light! Quality recorders run from about $70 to $130 for special features. Find one that is fairly user-friendly so if necessary your subject can work on his or her own.
Before the interview
Have your questions prepared ahead of time and remember to use open ended questions instead of those that can be answered with a yes or no. For instance, "What sort of plumbing did you have?" is more liable to elicit personal stories then, "Did you have indoor plumbing?" Also make sure your questions are historically applicable. The subject born in the 40's might be offended at the plumbing question!
During the interview
If you are going to interview more than one member of your family you might want to start with the youngest and work your way back. This way you can get many of the details that your eldest relative may not remember clearly.
Be considerate of this with any of your relatives; don't push too hard even if it's something you feel is important. Try jogging the memory by recounting what others have said. If you are only taking the history of one member and they are having trouble remembering some important detail, see if there is someone else you can go to for it.
Examples of open ended questions
Did your mother or father read to you? What sort of books did they like?
What kind of schools did you go to? Who was your favorite teacher?
What event in history do you remember having a powerful impact on you?
Tell me about your early home life
How did your family obtained food? From a farm or garden? Who worked the garden? The general store? What were the prices of the main food items?
What were your clothes like as a child? How were they different from what today's youth wear?
Questions like these often produce favorable memories from your relative and wonderful stories. This can be done long distance if nessicarily. I would like to be present for all of my fathers sessions but as this isn't possible, I send my father his questions email, he reads them and answers on tape.
I am not sure what my father is getting out of this project, but I know what I am getting--time getting to know someone I thought I knew in a whole different way; gaining perspective on what history is really about, not merely dry facts and dates, but stories of living breathing people and families doing normal every day family activities. I am also getting something I can pass onto my children when they say, "Tell me a story, Mom."
Teri Brown is a freelance writer and the homeschooling mother of two. Her
Christian Unschooling: growing your child in the freedom of Christ, is now available.
- The Sony Walkman WMSR1 is a great choice for amateur field recordings and oral histories. I (Lynn) strongly suggest you get an external microphone for whatever tape deck you do decide to use; the internal mic in the vast majority of tape decks is not worth the plastic it's made from. Save yourself some heartache and take my advice--I was in radio for many years and still use my old professional Marantz decks that aren't made any more because all the radio stations have moved to mini-disc. I really don't recommend mini-disc recorders unless you like to fool with technology; I am betting you know how a tape deck works, while mini-discs, my former colleagues tell me, are still rather temperamental.
- Bob Greene's To Our Children's Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come is a highly recommended guide to family histories, as is the Marshalls' Book of Myself; the latter is more of a journal, but the questions would work very well to start off anyone taking an oral history.