As genealogists we understand the value of oral histories. We also know the information therein must be taken “with a grain of salt.” An oral history is one person’s point of view and/or remembrance of an event. Even if it isn’t right-on, this is valuable in understanding our ancestors, their experiences and though processes.
We are told to talk to our relatives before it is too late. Taping an oral history is a wonderful way to capture their memories of people and events. This post is a how-to from my years of experience of oral history interviews and transcribing them.
1. Decide your mission. What information do you want to capture? Ask the person to fill out a family genealogy chart with as much information as possible before the interview. Have the charts there with as much information filled in as possible so the interviewee can add to and/or correct the information.
2. Research as much as possible so that questions can be developed to meet your goals. The questions should be narrow enough that the person can answer easily. Contact the person to be interviewed, set a date, and then mail the questions to them at least a week ahead. It takes time to bring up memories, find the information, and deal with the associated emotions. At the end of the interview ask if they have photos to share (so they can be scanned and returned immediately to them.) Caution: Don’t get caught up in looking at a photo album during the interview. There is nothing more useless than hearing – “And this is me and this is my brother…”.
3. Ask the interviewee to use full names, dates, and place names when possible. Instead of, “my grandparents…” ask them to say, “My grandparents John and Jane Smith…” If might help if you suggest they think of you as a complete stranger who knows nothing about the family.
4. Interview only one person at a time. I can’t stress this enough. If a family member insists on being there the rule is – they are not to say a word. Transcribing is impossible when more than one person is talking at a time. And having someone sitting there telling the person, “No, that’s not right. That happened in 1949…” is not helpful. I have also found that when two people are being interviewed, one partner is always dominant and you don’t hear the voice of the other. An interviewee might also be intimidated by another sitting there – even a close friend – you won’t get the information you are seeking.
5. Don’t interrupt. Ask the question and give the person time to draw on the memories, emotions, and then tell their story. If they veer off course, steer them back. The interviewer should say as little as possible. The oral history is not about the interviewer; it is about the interviewee. The goal is to get the interviewee talking about their family, their past, what life was like growing up. A few moments of silence is o.k. Nod and smile encouraging them to continue. They are bringing up memories. Get them to state specifics as to stores, people who ran the stores, the farms, farm machinery, animals, schools, teachers, classmates. Most colorful people in town, etc.
6. Eliminate background noises. It is difficult to hear when there are loud clocks, dogs barking, phones ringing, sirens, coughing.
7. Make sure your equipment works. Have fresh batteries in the recorder and have it turned on high volume. Have it close to the person to pick up their voice. Make sure they don’t put their hand over their mouth when talking. Have a back-up system just in case.
8. This process is tiring; about two hours is max, so if you get someone who has a lot of information, you may want to make an appointment to visit them again.