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December 18, 2013

Telling Family Stories Using Oral History

Creating a family history preserves important information for future generations. But, what if you could go one step further by preserving stories told by relatives in their own voices? It’s now easier than ever to make video and audio recordings of loved ones telling their stories. It’s also an opportunity to tell your own story.

These methods of preserving history are special because they can add detail and nuance that might be missed in a written history. Oral histories can become family treasures and a way for future generations to travel back in time.

How do you go about starting an oral history for your family? Here are four top tips!

  • Plan Your Project: Before you get started, decide where you’d like to end up. Do you want to do one-on-one interviews with certain relatives? Or would you like to chronicle the family matriarch making Thanksgiving dinner? There are many ways to tell a story. Creating a plan can keep you from feeling overwhelmed and help you break the project into manageable portions. If you plan to tell your own story, decide what pivotal moments in your life you’d like to highlight.
  • Share Your Plans: An oral history can be a family project, so share your plans with relatives who may be able to help you. Be prepared to explain the importance of an oral history and what your goals for the project will be. Relatives could be especially helpful if you’d like to interview a family member who lives far away. Collaboration also means more family investment in the project and the increased chance the stories you produce will be treasured and shared.
  • Identify Your Equipment: Decide how you plan to record your subjects. Quality audio and video recording equipment can now be purchased a relatively low cost. If you aren’t sure what you’d like to use, or if you don’t have the money to invest in equipment, you may be able to borrow some from your local library or university. Be sure to choose a recording format that can be updated and preserved. Cassette tapes, for example, are outdated and have poor quality compared to many digital recorders. Michigan State University provides more information on recording in a digital age here.
  • Prepare For Your Interviews: If you plan to do sit-down interviews with relatives, or if you plan to record your own story, you should make some preparations to get the most out of each session. First, find a quiet, comfortable place for the interview. Record a test and listen for low audio or an echo in the background. Make the proper adjustments until you’re satisfied with the results. If you’re recording video, make sure you have enough light, and record on a steady surface at an angle that showcases your subject well. You should also prepare some open-ended questions to spark memories from your subject and to keep your interview on track.

If you don’t feel entirely confident in your ability to capture oral family history with today’s equipment, consider asking a younger family member or grandchild to help. Involving younger generations can make the experience even more memorable. Looking for other ways to connect with grandchildren? See this blog!


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