First published Oct. 2020 as “Recording Family Histories”. Updated Feb. 2022
Capturing Family Stories
Record Histories from Those Who Remember – Before It’s Too Late
I have been designing a variety a memory quilt as a tribute to my parents. Whenever I work on it, I am grateful for the time that I spent with them talking about family pictures and stories but I always wish that I had recorded those conversations and asked more questions. I regret that I didn’t capture their voices and laughter. It would be wonderful to hear them again. Today is my Dad’s birthday and he has been gone for 15 years but I still miss him, especially on days like today. And on these milestone days, I am always reminded that there is never enough time and it is always a good time to ask the questions and record the voices. Which is what gave me the idea for today’s post.
It is not really that long ago that the source of much of our family histories were from the oral tradition and reminiscences of people who lived it. Maintain that tradition and speak to older family members to learn about your family history.
- Do your parents have a box of old photographs with no identifying features?
Sit down with your mom or dad and encourage them to tell you about the people, places and events in those old images. Take the opportunity to cull pictures that are blurry, duplicates or of events or people that they don’t recall.
- Does your favourite aunt keep trying to give you memorabilia from her days as a roving reporter?
Switch roles and interview her about her days on the road. ask her about the people she met and the meaning of all that memorabilia.
- Does your grandfather regale you with stories of his younger days and offer you tokens of his adventures?Listen to him retell his stories and hear them with new attention – ask questions, make note and seek details. Your granddad will appreciate an interested audience and you might find a new connection.
- Are there family stories or mysteries that you only sort of know?
Ask about the family black sheep, the mysterious painting, the treasure chest in the attic or any other unexplained or alluded to connections that captures your interest.
Should you talk about Bruno – or other mysterious family members?
Respect the Storyteller
Remember to be sensitive to the storyteller and respect what they want to share (and what they don’t) and how they want to tell it. There might be things that they are uncomfortable about sharing or reluctant to have told to others. Sometimes, they might need a little encouragement but if they resist or become uncomfortable, do not push the question and move on to something else that is easier for them to discuss. Perhaps you can revisit the initial topic another day, but only if your interviewee is comfortable with you and trusts that you will honour their stories.
Expect the Unexpected
Be aware that there is a chance that you’ll hear stories you might not want to hear. But you are also likely to hear things that surprise, delight and inform you. Take a chance and ask the questions. Even if it is a darker or more difficult story, it will help you to better understand your family and possibly yourself. Chances are, you’ll be glad that you took the time and asked the questions!
Be present. Listen and Engage
Most people welcome the opportunity to share their stories. For you, it can be gift, a chance to spend some time connecting with family and friends. I remember a few sessions when I encouraged my parents to label pictures and they brought out one of the boxes then went back and forth with stories while I noted details on the backs of the photos they described. Those were fun evenings with lots of laughter. I feel lucky to have shared that time with them and only wish we had done it more often. Now they have gone and there is still so much I wished that I had asked.
10 Tips for capturing oral histories
- Select a location that is comfortable to the subject and try to keep technology to a minimum and unobtrusive.
- Ask permission to take notes or record the discussion.
- Have a list of questions to start the conversation but don’t be too tied to a specific list or order. Be able to change course according to the whims of the speaker. Ask follow-up questions and be flexible. Conduct as a conversation and respond to what the interviewee says.
- Start with brief, biographical questions for context and to help your subject relax.
- Use open ended questions that invite a detailed response rather than a yes / no answer.
- Use pictures or memorabilia to prompt discussion or evoke memories.
- Give your subject time to think and answer. Be prepared to wait and learn to be comfortable with silence.
- Be an active listener and check understanding of words, phrases and references.
- Rather than one long marathon session, consider multiple smaller ones.
- Review notes shortly after the conversation while it is fresh in your mind. Take the opportunity to ask follow-up questions as soon as possible after the session.
A Few Resources
It is getting easier to record an interview with high quality with a minimum of tools. Here are just a few resources, which include tips for recording remotely when you can not be physically together (like during COVID-19 distancing).
The Oral History Centre: It’s time to tell our stories, 2020/2021
Oral History Association: Remote Interviewing Resources
The Podcast Host: Simple Setups for Recording In-Person, On-Location Podcast Interviews
(directed to podcasters but useful information for anyone recording an interview in person)
Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History from DoHistory
Canadian Oral History Association
Family History Apps – Top 8 Apps for Recording Family History
(Thanks to Connie Ragen Green for sharing this resource.) StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.
Why this is Important
There could be any number of reasons that collecting family stories is important to you. To name just a few:
- It is fun to hear the stories
- You want to write a book or create a family album
- It’s a chance learn more about yourself and how you became you
- You are the keeper of the family archives
- You want to know the stories of family heirlooms and collected treasures
Whatever your reason, time spent connecting to gather the stories is never wasted. And sometimes, those stories can help you make decisions about what you do want to keep and remember. You might want to decline the generous offer of your grandfather’s mounted stuffed swordfish but you don’t want to miss the chance to hear why it is important to him. Invite Gramps to pose with his trophy fish and tell you (or tell you again) all the details about the day he caught it – and how it fought the good fight.
You might not want to keep all the stuff that you or others have collected but the stories are something that can help you understand your family – and yourself better. And gathering those stories can help you create some wonderful new memories with the people you interview. What new stories will you discover today?
Share Your Experiences
Have you done heritage interviews? I would love to hear more. Share your experiences and suggestions in the comments.
Wonderful tips for helping families to connect with their histories and stories. My family has lots of those old albums with notes on the backs of photos, but sometimes those still aren’t enough to fill in the gaps or tell a full story. And with most photos now being digital and never even printed, we’re missing those chances to have a conversation and add notes. We discussed that recently in my group – about using the properties and metadata fields of key personal photos to add comments and data about people, places, context and story.
Another great resource to remember for helping seniors with memories, as well as resources to record stories – your local public library!
Thanks for the comment, Jennifer. I agree that digital images don’t provide the same connection. The library is a resource that is too often overlooked. Good reminder!
This is such important information and so very useful. My mother is in the process of slipping away–with dementia taking her memories, mostly short-term memories but it’s only a matter of time before the long-term memories will go, too.
My sister, who lives closer to our parents than I do, recently spent several weeks staying with them and going over old photos and memorabilia together. Not only is that helpful for all of us siblings to get that information down, it seems to have turned back the hands of the dementia clock and Mom is doing better after tripping down memory lane! Any amount of improvement, temporary as it is, is welcome.
Thank you for this article, and I’m going to bookmark it and come back again and again.
It is so hard to go through the challenges of dementia with family members. I’m so glad that your sister was able to capture some of those memories and give your mom some comfort too.
Wow – this is full of information and helpful steps for people to follow!
The tip about sitting down with that box of pictures really resonated with me. When my aunt passed on such a box to my dad (her baby brother), he didn’t recognize a lot of the people in the photos. We spent hours trying to figure out who they were.
One of my favorite treasures is my grandfather telling me all the funny stories he used to tell me as he tucked me into bed. After reading your post, I’m realizing I need to get that off of the cassette tape and into something digital before it’s too late!
Thanks for sharing!
I love looking through old boxes of photos but there is something so sad about not having some of the stories. I hope you and your dad were able to solve some of the mysteries. And what a great memory to have your grandfather telling you stories – and some of them recorded. You are lucky to have those memories. Thank you so much for sharing them here.
I love this post Mary Elizabeth. I wish I had done this with my parents and even my grandparents, but I was too young to be aware. They use to talk about picnics when they were young before WWI! This reminds me I need to call my second cousin and ask her why one of my great grandmothers was always called “Cookie Grandma”. Thanks for this post!
Thank you Cheryl. I know what you mean about wishing to have more of those conversations when there was a chance but there is not always a chance. I hope you are able to find out how “Cookie Grandma” came to be! And maybe others to share with cousins. Have fun with that.
Thank you for this. I want to record and possibly create a book from the stories my father shares on the regular. Your article gave me some great tips and inspiration to start saving those memories for future generations.
That sounds like a fun and valuable project, Michelle. Enjoy the process. Thanks for sharing.
I don’t know if I have enough words to tell you how much I love this post, Mary Elizabeth. Family stories and memoirs make for the very best storytelling. I hope you will check out StoryCorps.org, a group I recently connected with. Also, have you published a book of your family stories?
Thanks for the kind words, Connie – and thanks for the great additional resource. It looks fascinating and I already headed down a few rabbit holes of exploration.