[reprinted from June of 2003]
from the Ancestry Daily News
Michael John Neill – 6/4/2003
Summer, along with family trips and reunions, is quickly approaching. This week we take a short look at obtaining oral information from relatives. While its accuracy is sometimes questionable, for most of us oral history is a great starting point to our family history. Even for those of us who’ve been researching for some time, there still are questions we probably need to ask. All family historians would do well to remember that oral history, when it still exists only in a person’s mind, is the most fragile family history source we have.
An excellent way to preserve the interview (at least for the short term) is to record the interview on audio or videotape. While a transcription should be made, the tape frees the interviewer from taking copious notes during the interview.
Tips for Recording Oral Histories
1. Schedule the oral history session in advance. This gives the person time to reflect, and hopefully to remember more detail. It also gives the person time to locate family materials in their home.
2. Bring an audio or video recorder, and a pen or pencil and paper. If you want to use a recording device, make sure you get permission from the person you’re interviewing before you show up on their doorstep, camera in hand. Take some notes even if you record the interview (you may need to refer to them during the interview if nothing else) and practice using the recorder before the interview.
3. Bring a list of questions in advance and consider sending some of them to the interviewee in advance as well. If you’re taking notes on paper, leave space for the answers or number the questions and then number the answers on a separate sheet. You can also take notes on a laptop computer as long as your typing skills are sufficient.
4. Don’t be afraid to let the interviewee get off the subject. You may get unexpected good stories this way. If necessary, gently steer your interviewee in the right direction if their digression has truly taken them far afield.
5. Don’t push for answers. This may only aggravate the person and cause them to cease answering questions.
6. If it is clear that a question has upset the interviewee, back off. You might have inadvertently brought up a family skeleton. Unless you are trying to solve your great-grandfather’s unsolved murder, remember that you are not conducting a police interrogation.
7. Exact dates can be difficult to remember. Try to have the person put the event in perspective relative to other events in their life—their marriage, the death of a parent, a war, etc. Forcing them to guess at dates is not in your best interest and approximate dates within the context of a chronology can perhaps be pinned down later with other records and historical sources.
8. When contacting the person, ask if they have any old pictures or family mementos. Bring along any you have as well. These may be fodder for additional conversation.
9. Keep the session reasonably short. Three hours at one sitting is probably too much. Send the person a follow-up thank you note, enclosing an SASE in case they care to jot anything else down and send it to you.
10. Consider taking a scanner or a digital camera. This may be an excellent way to make copies of photographs or documents that your interviewee may not wish to leave their house.
Avoid getting overly personal. There are some things a person would like to take to their grave with them.
Suggested Questions—Just to Get You Started
Where and when were you born?
What do you recall about your childhood?
Where did you live and go to school?
How long did you attend school?
What do you remember best about your parents?
What did you and your siblings do in your spare time?
Did the family move around quite a bit?
What is your favorite childhood memory?
What styles of clothing did children wear then?
Did your family have any special traditions?
Are there any family recipes that are particularly special?
Are there any heirlooms that have been passed down from one generation to another?
When did you leave home?
Why did you leave and where did you go?
How long did you attend school?
Did you have a favorite aunt/uncle?
How did your life change when you left home? Did you feel grown up? Were you a little scared?
When did you get married?
How did you meet your spouse?
Which significant historical events have taken place during your lifetime?
Did your parents have strong political feelings?
Were there wars, natural disasters, or political changes?
How did these events affect you?
Who was (is) your favorite president?
How was your life different after the war?
For whom did you cast your first vote?
Immigration (if relevant)
How old were you when you immigrated?
Who came with you?
Were you scared? How did you feel as you undertook this journey?
Were did you come from and where and when did you arrive?
How did you travel? How did you travel from the coast inland? How long did the trip take?
What was the biggest change you faced?
Did you have a difficult time adjusting?
Why did you or your family immigrate?
Did you ever wish you had never left?
What was the biggest adjustment you had to make?
What did your parents do for a living?
Did your mother work outside the home?
Was your family financially comfortable?
How old were you when you got your first job?
What jobs have you had during your life?
Which job was your favorite?
What physical characteristics do people in your family share?
Which family member do you resemble?
Earlier family members
Did you know your grandparents or great-grandparents?
What were their names?
Where did they live?
Why did they move from one location to another?
What part did religion play in your family?
What church did the family attend?
Were you very religious?
Did you go to religious services on a regular basis?
Other Possible Topics
Education, Politics, Military Service, Recreation, Family Pets, Traveling, Dating, Clothing, Family Recipes, Family Medical History, Marriage and Raising a Family, and just about anything else that is of interest to family members. Remember that the impact of national and regional events on the lives of your family members can bring out excellent information as well.
Some Additional Thoughts:
If the family moved, ask what caused the family to move?
If a parent died young, ask how this impacted the family?
If a sibling or relative was in a war, ask how this impacted the family?
Don’t just ask for dates, names, and places. Ask for reasons or reactions. The reason or reaction can be more interesting than the specific event itself.
Ask “why” where appropriate, but avoid being overly personal.
No Leading Questions
Do not suggest the answer to the person answering the question. Questions like “Grandma was born in Ohio wasn’t she?” can easily be answered “yes” when the person is actually not certain. Your goal is to get at an accurate rendering of what the person remembers. Asking for clarification to something you misunderstood is fine, suggesting an answer is not.
Hopefully the courthouse, the library, and the cemetery will be around for a while. Grandma might not be. If she has information in her head you haven’t tried to get out, make an effort. Now I have a few relatives myself I need to interview, including a few first cousins of my parents and grandparents. Don’t forget the “shirttail” kin as well.