The webinar “Preserving Your Family’s Oral History & Stories” by Thomas MacEntee gave me more new ideas for interviewing relatives and preserving memories than I could scribble down.
Since it was sponsored by “Saving Memories Forever,” Winner of The RootsTech 2014 Developer’s Challenge, I figured it would be an explanation of what their website or new phone app can do for your oral history gathering, when in reality it was chuck full of marvelous suggestions and creative ideas.
I am a fairly new relative searcher — not a lot of years of experience under my belt. Like bees to honey, I am drawn to webinars to expand my knowledge and my toolbox. In spite of the fact that all my older relatives are gone, I was sure there would be some nugget of knowledge I could use somewhere for something in my genealogy research.
Boy, was I wrong. Preserving oral history isn’t just about interviewing your elders. It isn’t even just about talking to relatives. Thomas made it come alive with so many suggestions, my head was swimming halfway through his webinar.
- Oral history is just storytelling. It’s nothing fancy or complicated. In fact most of us grew up with it. Our grandparents, Aunts, or parents brought out photos and started telling us about who was in them. Most likely as a child you dragged out that black paged scrapbook and demanded to know about it!
- To get started, make a plan. It’s more than choosing who you want to interview. Think about how you’re going to interview. Depending on their age, think about the best way to interview. Some could use computer, maybe Skype. Others don’t even use email.
- Think about where you will interview. It doesn’t have to be at their house. Perhaps a reunion, or a wedding. Don’t skip family events for picking up oral history. Think outside the box. Thomas mentioned he’s even used funeral visitation, although he was quick to point out he did it in a room off of the viewing room during a break.
- What will you use to interview? Your cell phone, and various recording devices were mentioned with the pros and cons discussed. Basically you should use what you’re comfortable and familiar with. Always make sure your relative is comfortable with the device. Do whatever you need to do to set their mind at ease. Always take extra batteries. Make sure, double check, you’ve packed your power supply. If you’re going to purchase new equipment, practice, practice, practice with it before the interview. Nothing can shut down a person faster than you fumbling around trying to get a new gadget to work.
- Audio, visual, or even writing. Choose what the person is most comfortable using. If they are awkward and shy in front of a camera, try audio only. Don’t forget writing. Some people are more comfortable writing out their stories.
- Figure out what you’d like to know and make up a set of questions beforehand. It’s polite to give these questions to your relative beforehand. Not that you want a practiced speech, but it will give them time to think about the topics, rather than feeling pressured to come up with an answer quickly.
- Don’t forget photos. Bringing out a photo with an older relatives can open a whole new discussion. They may reveal things you wouldn’t have thought to ask about.
- If possible, include children! Yes, children can bring out the story-telling skills in your older relatives. Who wouldn’t want to sit down with a child and tell them about their early childhood. They’ll lose their shyness, that feeling of being put on the spot and forget they are being recorded. You get a more natural sounding voice, and possibly more information.
- Keep it short. This includes the length of the interview, and the length of the answers. Depending on the person, you may have to gently direct them back to the original question. Take three to five minutes on each question, about an hour on the whole interview. Any more could tire them out.
By this time, my notes were getting pretty scrambled and I was getting behind. He talked a lot more about technology and how to choose it and use it.
He covered some basic interviewing skills like, don’t interrupt. Don’t correct them if you have different information. Let them finish their story, but be mindful of the time, especially if they get off topic. Silence is alright. Don’t finish their sentence for them or jump immediately to the next interview question. Let them think about it. And don’t be a know-it-all or try to sound smart. This is their shining moment. Let them be the star!
The use of props, he pointed out, can be very helpful in starting out a conversation. Take along homemade quilts, inherited jewelry, tablecloths, crocheted doilies, or Aunt Myrtle’s silver. OK, so he didn’t actually say Aunt Myrtle, but I have an Aunt Myrtle and she used to send relatives all sorts of things. It just sort of popped out.
When you’re done with your interview, transcribe it immediately. It’ll be easier, plus you won’t make as many mistakes when it’s all fresh in your mind. Let your relative know how much you appreciated their time and input by sending them a thank you note. That will also help if you need to go back later!
OK, so that was the first part of his webinar. I had hoped to cover the whole thing in this post, but am running short on time. Tomorrow I’ll pass along Thomas’ thoughts on what to do after the interview: backing up your data, some creative ideas on what you can do with what you’ve collected, various vendors, programs and online services to publish the oral history you’ve gathered, and how Sharing Memories Forever can help.
In the meantime, check out their list of sample questions. That’s larger print and covers two pages. This one is in a smaller font and fits on one page.