Recording Oral Histories

by Oct 6, 2020

Capturing stories before they disappear

I have been working on designing a variety of memory quilts.  One that I want to do is a tribute to my Mom and Dad.  Whenever I work on that, 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 more of their stories  more formally.  And definitely with some vocal recordings.

Asking the questions

Do your parents have a box of old photographs with no identifying features?  Does your favorite aunt keep trying to give you memorabilia from her days as a roving reporter?  Does your grandfather regale you with stories and offer you tokens of his adventures?
You might value the collections and want to restore them for display and sharing.  Or it might be that you want to learn the stories behind accumulated stuff that has come into your possession.  Or maybe you don’t even want all the treasures but  you  want to be sure that their tales are not lost.  Whatever the reason, now is the time to record some of those details.
  • Sit down with your Mom and Dad and have them tell you about the people, places and events in those old images.
  • Interview your aunt about her days on the beat and have her tell you about the people she met and the meaning of all that memorabilia.
  • Listen to your grandfather retell his stories and hear them with new attention – ask questions, make note and seek details.
Taking the time to do this will ensure that history is not lost.  Start now.  Make a date to connect.  Don’t wait and later regret not asking the questions.
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.

10 Tips for capturing oral histories

  1. Select a location that is comfortable to the subject and try to keep technology to a minimum and unobtrusive. 
  2. Ask permission to take notes or record the discussion.
  3. 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.
  4. Start with brief, biographical questions for context and to help your subject relax.
  5. Use open ended questions that invite a detailed response rather than a yes / no answer.
  6. Use pictures or memorabilia to prompt discussion or evoke memories.
  7. Give your subject time to think and answer.  Be prepared to wait and learn to be comfortable with silence.
  8. Be an active listener and check understanding of words, phrases and references.
  9. Rather than one long marathon session, consider multiple smaller ones.
  10. 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.

Recording Tools

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 during COVID-19 distancing.

The Oral History Centre: It’s time to tell our stories, 2020

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)

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.

 Time to connect and gather the stories is never wasted. So, you might want to decline the generous offer of a stuffed swordfish but don’t miss the chance to hear its meaning.  Invite Gramps to pose with his trophy fish and tell you again about the day he caught it – and how it fought the good fight.  You’ll be glad that you did!
Featured Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay
Mary Elizabeth O'Toole

Mary Elizabeth O'Toole

Educator, Artist, Storyteller


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