Genealogy Guide - How to Get the Most from Oral History Research

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Joe Hanneman

If anyone understood the power of stories, it was Rudyard Kipling. The Nobel Prize-winning author of Gunga Din, The Jungle Book and Captains Courageous crafted some of the most memorable stories ever put to paper. “If history were taught in the form of stories,” Kipling once said, “it would never be forgotten.”

Kipling was on to something, and genealogists can profit from his wisdom. An often-overlooked but powerful tool for family historians is the oral history interview. Hearing history described in the very voice of those who witnessed it can be very powerful. And memorable. It can make an otherwise average topic seem alive.

With just a little organization and planning, you can undertake an oral history project that will pay dividends for generations.

Pick Your Subjects

It’s a good idea to start with someone who has family seniority, so to speak. Grandparents or great-grandparents are perfect subjects for oral history research. Find those who you believe to have the best knowledge of the family, its people and its stories. It can be a non-family member. Perhaps someone who worked with or lived near the family patriarch or matriarch. It’s ideal when the interview subjects lived the events they will describe, or heard about them firsthand from their ancestors.

Do Prep Research

Make sure to do a little homework beforehand. It helps to have at least a working knowledge of the person, be they a distant aunt or a family friend. This helps avoid taking up valuable interview time covering details that might already exist in written form (such as a family tree or journal). Knowing your subject shows that you care about the project. It also helps prompt more details during the interview. Be sure to also check online sites like or for a solid background.

Outline Your Questions

Make a list of potential questions, but realize up front that you won’t get to them all in your first session. Ask about people or events to help focus the discussion. Rather than saying, “Tell me about your life,” it’s better to ask, “What was it like to grow up on a farm?” It’s fine if the list is long. You will use it as a guide during your talks. You might never get all of the answers, but having a list will keep you from forgetting to ask the really important questions.

Select your Recording Device

Here’s some sound advice (pun intended): use a digital audio recorder such as an iPhone rather than trying to do video. A phone can be set on the table nearby and won’t be an intimidation factor. Video cameras can cause stage fright and stifle the freewheeling nature of a good talk. It’s also much easier to store and edit digital audio files than video. Most online genealogy sites will let you upload files so you can keep all your information together, offers particularly strong storage options. Often for less than $10 you can purchase a recording app that is far superior to the built-in “voice memo” feature on smartphones and tablets. Do a little research. Download trial versions and test out which app works best for you.

Have a Conversation or Three

Find a time for your first interview where the subject can relax and feel free to talk. A weekend afternoon is a great time. Sit on the porch or at the kitchen table sipping coffee — wherever your subject is in their element. Look for a place with low background noise. If the freight train rolls by every hour, it’s best not to sit outside. If inside, make sure the television is off. You want the audio to be as clean as possible.

Start out simple. Listen. Resist the urge to interrupt or share your own thoughts. A great tale can be spoiled by an interviewer who, at the critical moment, blurts out, “I KNOW what your mean!” The best oral history is your subject telling their own stories. It’s fine to take a break every so often. Stop and save your recording, then start a new one with the next question. This way, should one of the files get damaged, you won’t lose everything.

Keep an eye on the clock. Watch for signs that your subject is growing weary. You want this to be enjoyable for them, so consider scheduling a series of times for your talks. Most people love to talk about the past, but if the sessions get arduous, they might blanch at doing another. Before you finish, ask your subject to say their name and one or two summary sentences: “My name is Patricia Smythe and I grew up in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.” These little snippets make great introductions should you later decide to make an audio CD.

Process Your Information

After each interview, you will quickly realize the volume of information you have captured. Find a friend or relative who is good at typing and ask for help transcribing the interviews. If this chore seems too daunting, at least listen to the interview and mark the time codes of particularly good stories or subjects. This will help listeners find what interests them most. As wementioned before, some online genealogy websites have features that allow you to upload audio files. You can also post interviews online using websites such as SoundCloud.

It’s never too soon to start an oral history project. Conduct your interviews while your subjects are strong and healthy. Even if they are in frail health, be gently persistent in paying visits and recording interviews. You will never regret having “too much” audio. Your descendants will owe you, and your interviewees, a great debt of gratitude.

Now that you know more about getting offline family tree information, why not have a look at storing them with the best genealogy sites on the market in 2016? Click here to get started.

About Joe Hanneman

Joe has worked in the fields of journalism, communications, and marketing for more than 30 years. In 2015, he set up the Treasured Lives blog, focusing on historical investigative journalism, genealogy industry information, and features on historic advertisements and news articles.


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