Information from living relatives can be an invaluable tool for genealogists and a precious gift for future generations, and oral history forms can be an important part of recording this information. Learn how to collect useful oral histories for your genealogy files.
What Is an Oral History?
Wouldn't it be wonderful if your great-great grandfather had recorded his impressions of the voyage to America? What if your great-grandmother had left a record of what it was like to live during the roaring 1920s? Personal memories, or oral histories, add a more human side to the usual list of names and dates that make up a family tree.
One of the biggest genealogy research mistakes is neglecting to record the personal memories of living relatives. You can capture and preserve these stories using oral history forms that are specifically designed for the purpose, and many of these forms are free of charge. You can also easily create your own form.
Where to Find Oral History Forms
When you record an oral history, you need an established list of questions. You can record the history in an interview format, or you can ask your relative to simply fill out the answers to a few questions. The following websites have helpful forms for recording oral histories:
- Perhaps the most well-researched and valuable resource for conducting oral histories is the downloadable The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Inverviewing Guide. This comprehensive guidebook offers detailed and interesting questions, forms, and many very helpful tips on interviewing relatives.
- Genealogy.com offers a free list of suggested oral history questions. Besides basic information like the person's name and birth date, this list will prompt you to ask question about immigration, family artifacts, physical attributes, and other important topics.
- The Okeechobee Genealogical Society on RootsWeb has an excellent oral history question list. Topics include the personalities of the interviewee's grandparents and parents, the income and livelihood of the family, descriptions of holiday celebrations, and other useful information.
- Another great option is RootsWeb's Script for Interviews with Family Members. This list includes information about school memories, career development, military service, and advice regarding love, education, and child-rearing.
- The University of North Carolina's Guide to Oral History and the Law is a great resource if you need to have your interviewee sign a legal release. A release is a good idea if you plan to publish the material you cover in the interview, rather than simply use the reminiscences for your genealogical files.
Tips for Recording Oral Histories
As you get ready to conduct oral history interviews for your genealogy files, keep the following helpful tips in mind:
- Consider breaking the interview into sections. Your interviewee may tire of the questions early, so you could prioritize your questions in order of importance. You could also plan to hold several interview sessions to cover everything.
- Use a tape recorder or video camera. You don't want to take the time to write down the answer to each question on the oral history form. Instead, you can record the interview and create a transcript later.
- Oral histories can be a great activity for family reunions. Consider recording relatives' impressions of a specific event, issue, or individual. Since you'll be taking several oral histories at once, use a recording device, and keep the interviews short.
- Before you begin the interview, make a list of the topics you'd most like to cover. You can create your own questions based on these topics. When creating questions, try to encourage a long, detailed answer. Avoid questions that can be answered by one or two words.
- After your interview, be sure to thank the interviewee. Most people are happy to have their memories recorded for future generations, but it's always nice to show your appreciation.
- Have fun! An oral history is really just a conversation. Enjoy this chance to get to know your relatives.