Oral History in Genealogy Research

How many of us have had an opportunity to sit down with an older member of the family and get the straight information about our ancestors? How many times with this situation have we walked away feeling frustrated that we did not receive all of the answers that we wanted from that conversation? The real problem, in most cases, is that we walked into the situation unprepared and with mixed agendas. Frequently, we ask the wrong questions. We want to lead the conversation and not follow where it is going.

Having talked with hundreds of people through fifty plus years of research, I have found a few things are useful in these conversations. First, we frequently ask questions that are too broad in scope like “Grandpaw, tell me about when you were growing up.” This question covers a broad scope of items like school, church, family life, brothers and sisters, the death of older family members. The list could go on and on. Sometimes, it is difficult for older people to focus on one or more subjects when the list is open ended like this one.

You also want to be prepared with background information that you have picked up already from other members of the family. Know as much about the subject as you can before you question them. Take one subject at a time like “school”. Ask about the school days, books they used, tools they had, friends in the class, and teachers. One of the more interesting documents in my files is a teacher’s schedule. I would love to know what he meant by the word “charting” which was done twice a day, the last thing before lunch and last bell. I have thought that it meant “penmanship” or something like that, but no one is old enough to give me the clue. This came from about the turn of the last century. In the materials passed on to me from this teacher were his teaching aids, like flash cards found in Arbuckle’s Coffee, grease paint for plays and marbles probably taken from the boys who played with them during class.

You can then go to one of the other subjects, but keep in mind that you want to keep all of this short and to the point. Older folks never tire of talking about the past, but they do grow weary from all the conversation. A good rule of thumb is “never more than one hour”, especially if the one being interviewed is weak or sick or just giving out with the conversation.

One of the rules of thumb before the interview is ask yourself the same questions. How hard are these to answer for yourself just as if your great-grandchild is asking you that question fifty years from now. If you feel that you have to rephrase the questions, don’t be afraid to change and make the question easier to answer. The person being interviewed will likely know the answers and will give them to you without reservation, if they feel that what they are saying is going to add to the accumulation of knowledge into the family. They really want the story told.

Don’t dwell on the specific dates for things as the exact date of an event may have been forgotten long ago, but the memories of that event can never be forgotten. Only my father-in-law could give exact dates for events with time and place. He had been a bookkeeper for two different railroads his entire working career and at the age of 95, he could give you almost any date in his history. He had little or no interest in his family history, however. This made for very frustrating conversations. I have had to dig up the facts for myself.

When you go for an interview with an older person, keep the mechanics of the event down to a minimum. Never give an elderly person a tape recorder that they can record when they remember something. I have seen this to be a disaster far too many times. The tape is erased, or the machine could not be turned on correctly and especially if they had to push “two” buttons at the same time. Some type of recorder should be used, but be in control yourself and don’t make it so obvious to the responder. They should know that it is present, but it should not be in the way of the “talking”.

Once you have recorded the conversation, make duplicate copies of the time together and let the respondent know that copies will be made available to others if they request them.

One word of real caution – never try to talk with two people at one time. This sounds like a dream situation, but in the final analysis it will be a disaster, especially if you are trying to get this on tape. You might try this sometime just for fun and then try to listen to it later. The voices overlap and they talk over each other and the end results are a jumbled mess. I have a tape of three local historians talking together about local history and it is almost impossible to know who is saying what. Thank goodness, a secretary was seated next to the tape recorder and was talking the conversation down in shorthand. She then typed this up immediately and identified each side of the conversation so that now with all three historians gone, you can read their thoughts. I have listened to the tape with the script and it makes sense, but without the script it is mish-mash.

Interviews are extremely important to our understanding of the family at the time they were living. Just take a few minutes to plan out this time with some older person and lay out the questions for which you want to find answers. Don’t rush the process, but enjoy the time spent with the elders. They really do want to pass on their knowledge.

Happy Hunting!

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Phone: 423.886.6369    Fax: 423-886-5312