Using Oral History in your Family History


Oral history is a very important part of doing family history, after all the stories are the cornerstone of the history itself, and are most often the starting point we as historians use to go back further in the family’s background.  We probe, we prod, we unmercifully ask all our relatives questions about family members in order to find out more about the family.  It is therefore important to go about asking questions in a systematic and traceable way.


First of all I recommend that you pester yourself first.  Start learning about your family’s history and the techniques of oral history by asking the questions of yourself first.  You can do this by just taking the questions you intend to ask your older relatives, and ask them of yourself. You can just write your answers, or even better record them.  You will get a better appreciation for the time answering such personal questions takes, and the process of actually remembering.  You might also gain an appreciation on what should and shouldn’t be asked, or how to ask the questions without ticking off the person you are talking to.


And for more fun, transcribe your interview before you start interviewing others.  You learn more about the better placement of the microphone and the need not to mumble questions.  If you are video taping the interview you will also get a better feel for where to place the cameras for a more flattering angle and good sound.


Always have a plan.  A list of questions that you intend to ask your subject is a must.  But make sure that the list is not that long.  Planning is great, but also remember they may not have the same plan as you.  Your interests are yours, and the person you are interviewing may have a whole different agenda.  I remember interviewing a cousin about her grandfather, and she kept going off on a talk about her other grandfather.  And while it was slightly interesting, he wasn’t related to me.  But I couldn’t stop her talking about him.  You might run out of tape before your list is exhausted (especially if it is long).


People lie.  They sometimes don’t do it on purpose, sometimes they do.  My dad hated not knowing the answer to a question.  Rather than saying, I am sorry, I don’t know, he would make something up.  He did this often when I had questions about the family.  Sometimes they soften the truth so that you are not disappointed.  When questioning a cousin about my grandmother, she would say that she was a wonderful person.  When pressed to talk about her being kicked out of school for bad behaviour (a story told by several sources) she said, ‘oh no, your grandmother was not like that, she was lovely.’ She told me what she thought I wanted to hear.


I have also found that you should transcribe the interviews right away.  I say this because I have about two hours of interviews with my mother on tape, and I have yet to listen to them.  It is too hard.  She has been gone over ten years, and I find it difficult to hear her voice.  I wish I had transcribed it, so I could at least have her words. The black and white of the printed word is less fraught with emotions.


A note from a person who has transcribed many interviews- please don’t eat when you interview someone.  The sound of cutlery makes the recording hard to hear, and hard to understand. If there is coffee or other drinks around, make sure the microphone is not nearby.


Interview as many people as possible.  Don’t wait for them to be the oldest or the last member of their generation before you get their stories.  And have fun, these are your families’ stories.