Oral history is the systematic collection of living people’s testimony about their own experiences. Historians recognize that the everyday memories of everyday people, not just the rich and famous, have historical importance.
Your stories and the stories of the people around you are unique, valuable treasures for your family and your community. You and your family can preserve unwritten family history by collecting and preserving these stories.
Many people become concerned about “doing it right,” yet getting a voice on tape or on video is the most important thing. If you are looking to record the memories of someone else, here are some tips to consider:
- In general, have a list of topics in mind, not specific questions, word-for-word, and not a specific sequence.
- Begin by asking a question that will prompt a long answer and “get the subject going.”
- Ask easy questions first, such as brief biographical queries. Only later, once a rapport has been established, should you add personal or emotionally demanding questions
- Don’t be afraid of allowing there to be some silence while the subject thinks about answering the question.
- Be a good listener, using body language such as looking at the interviewee, nodding, and smiling to encourage and give the message, “I am interested.”
- If necessary, use verbal encouragement such as “This is wonderful information!” or “How interesting!” Be careful, however, not to pepper the interview with verbal encouragement such as “uh-huh,” said at the same time that the interviewee is speaking.
- Ask for specific examples if the interviewee makes a general statement and you need to know more. Or you might say, “I don’t understand. Could you explain that in more detail?”
- Rephrase and re-ask an important question several times to get the full amount of information the interviewee knows.
- Ask open-ended questions that will elicit more than one word answers.
- Be flexible. Watch for and pick up on promising topics introduced by the interviewee, even if the topics are not on your interview guide sheet.
The most important thing to remember? Don’t procrastinate. You don’t want to wait too long.