HOW TO DO ORAL HISTORIES

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Preserving today’s memories for tomorrow

Probably the most interesting and fun way to learn about the life of a relative is to conduct an Oral History session with them. This is a very informal way to learn about their life in a relaxed atmosphere.  As people age their memories often fade, but reliving the important things that happened in their life brings things back into focus so that the special memories can be relived and enjoyed while they are being recorded.  In the past, tape recorders were used to conduct these informal interviews, but today, recording on a cell phone is just as effective.  Just by asking simple questions you will learn about family traditions and hear some very good stories. The session can bring your family tree to life.

Some general rules:

  1. Make an appointment – don’t just show up.  Be clear about what you would like to accomplish and get their permission.  Get permission to use your phone to record what they say, and for you to take notes.

  2. Make sure to record the time, date and location of the interview, and the name of the interviewee and interviewer.

  3. Start off with simple questions – when and where were they born?  Who were your siblings? Where did you spend your early years, and school years?

  4. If you ask a “when” question they may not remember, but if you phrase it – “did this happen before or after you graduated from high school” or “about how old were you when…?”

  5.  Don’t push for answers, as they may be uncomfortable discussing that question.  Ask if they would rather talk about something else.

  6. Keep the session short – sometimes an hour is enough.

  7. Here are some sample topics:

    • What do you remember about your childhood?

    • What do you remember about your parents?  Your siblings, your grandparents or childhood friends?

    • Did your family have any special traditions on birthdays or holidays?

    • When did you leave home?

    • Were there wars, natural disasters or political changes that you recall?

    • How did these events affect you?

    • What did your parents do for a living when you were growing up? Did you help them?  Did you learn any special skills from your parents?

    • What was your first job? How old were you when you started working?

    • What different jobs have you had during your lifetime?

    • What do you remember about your grandparents?

    • Did religion play a part in your family?

  8. Other possible topics: education, military service, entertainment as they were growing up, family personalities, pets, raising their own family, family recipes, travel, hobbies. 

  9. I found that cookies and a beverage are good to bring along with you to help the interviewee relax.

  10. When my sister and I interviewed our mother, we learned several things that we had not known.  Mom grew up on the prairie of Montana during the early Depression.  At age six she rode her horse 4 miles to school and back.  She had a pet lamb that was rejected by his mother, that she bottle-fed, and he was her only pet. One day she could not find “Curly” and then discovered that he was the main course for the dinner for the reapers that day.  We asked if she missed anything about Montana when she moved back to Wisconsin.  She said “NO” except my horse and “Curley”.

Barbara Dahl

Family Search:  this is a free Mormon web site of information, and can be very helpful, but one needs to verify information taken from them as they are known to have a lot of errors and inaccuracies on family information

MO Birth & Death Records

Finding Vital Records

Finding Land Records