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Oral History Gathering And Your Family History

12:15 Mon 28th Mar 2011 |

The research into your family will have caused you to accumulate a vast personal archive of primary source and secondary source material. Much of the research will consist of names, dates and locations. This is primarily the Genealogy of our ancestors, forming the basis of our individual family history.

The essential information we must look for lies beyond the names and dates – it is personal information that allows us to build a unique profile of each of our ancestors.  Where did they go to school? Who was their best man? What memories do they have of grandparents? Where did Dad work?

One of the most revealing and significant areas of research is the Oral History interview of a relative. It can be a personal account of the life of your grandparent, a detailed account of your uncle's life in the armed forces or an account by your mother of how she managed to bring up the family. Whatever information can be gathered will be extremely helpful when building a picture of the life of your ancestors.

Taking time to sit down and use your listening skills and natural curiosity about your family can reveal a wealth of detail and information that can lead you to areas of research that you would never have imagined exploring.

Preparing for recording an Oral History

It is a simple enough task, little preparation and equipment is needed, a basic audio or video recording device (preferably with an external microphone) would be sufficient. Your role is to choose a person to interview, explain to them that you need them to be natural and express themselves in relaxed and informal terms, as though they were recounting their life or an event in a conversation. Not all interviewees will be comfortable at first and many may feel they have nothing of interest to talk about. It is the interviewers’ role to encourage them and stimulate conversation whereby they are recalling events and places, people and incidents as they speak. This is where the most surprises and information appears.

A good interview recording is one where the interviewee is left to talk uninterrupted, any pause should not be used for the interviewer to jump in and ask a question that might distract or cut short the train of thought. If your subject is trying to remember a name or a date, it is better to use gentle prompts like 'how old were you then' or 'were you already at school' rather than try to include information you already have that might cause them confusion or mix an event up.

Rather than carry out an extended interview at one session, it might be more rewarding to just try a couple of hours at first to try out your recording system and technique and to give the interviewee the opportunity to feel they do have something of interest to recount. Many people have found that the opportunity to put down for posterity certain aspects of their life has been emotional and rewarding and they have felt proud that someone has taken the time to listen and consider their lives worth putting into history.

What To Do With Your Recording

Once you have taken your recording and are able to listen back to it you can either make notes or attempt a full transcript. Writing out every word of a two hour interview is a very lengthy process and needs to be done with attention to colloquialism and with an appendix used to note who people mentioned are. It is also necessary to include a historical timeline in some cases if World events are mentioned in the interview.

Once you have carried out an interview you will realise not only its historical value to your research but also its priceless sentimental value to you and your family. We can all Google recordings of Elvis, John Wayne and Martin Luther King, we can't simply Google an interview with our granddad, Dad or favourite Uncle. Imagine being able to have such a wonderful record of your relative to pass on down the generations.  It is more than just Uncle Bill dancing at your wedding, or your parents on holiday in Spain; it is a thoughtful and often emotional personal account from someone close to you, giving a unique insight into their life.

I interviewed my own father in 1998, I used a cassette recorder and a 180 minute cassette, I asked my Dad to just start with his name and date and place of birth and then to start talking about his early childhood memories. He managed to talk for almost two hours, with the odd chirp in from my Mum. I was doing an Oral History module at University at the time and therefore I had to do a detailed transcript and write an essay on what aspects of the interview I could carry out further research on.  Sadly I wrote the essay but I never carried out any further interview. Six years later my brother-in-law transferred the cassette to a CD and copies of that and the written transcript were given to our relatives at my father's funeral, and after they had played it many people said how emotional and wonderful it was to have as a memento.

That is after all why we are doing our research, to put us all into history and to make our mark.


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