Oral History

One of the most important aspects of genealogy is recording oral or spoken history before it is too late.

Many people become passionate about genealogy due to the influence of the older generation, especially family members. We are fascinated by what our ancestors may have lived through and their place in history.

Elderly relatives can be a valuable resource in recording family history so take advantage of their knowledge and their personal involvement in the past.

Informal encounters such as family gatherings and visits are a wonderful way to get started, but to truly record oral history you must take a more formal approach.

Plan your interview carefully; remember this is essentially a conversation that will increase your knowledge, so try to make it as pleasurable an experience for the subject as possible.

Before the interview, be realistic about the demands you can make on a subject’s time. Have clear goals about what you want to know and write a list of things you would like to learn. Use a template if necessary to keep yourself on track.

Assess what you already know, writing questions based on names, places of origin, dates, births, marriages or deaths. Some people like to send these in advance so the subject is prepared, and others like to be more informal.

Once you have your questions prepared, you may find it useful to practice your interviewing skills on a close friend or immediate family member. One of the most important things to remember is to put yourself in the place of the person you are interviewing and empathize with their story. Be diplomatic and patient, and don't be too inflexible. Let the interviewee go in a different direction if they want to--often this is when you find out the most interesting tidbits.

A cooperative subject is a happy subject, so make your interviewee feel at ease and in control of the situation.

Another useful trigger is a photograph. Be sure to bring any photos you have questions about, and ask your subject to bring along family pictures too. On a History Detectives investigation, this is often one of the first places to start.

You may only get one chance to interview someone, so make your questions count. Do some pre-planning, be prepared and the interview should go smoothly.

If you are not able to interview someone face-to-face, you should consider doing it through a letter or email. The first thing to do is make contact with the subject, and explain who you are and what you are trying to achieve. If they are willing to be involved, send them a basic questionnaire and then follow up with a more detailed list of questions if they are helpful

Reassure them of your good intentions and let them know how the information will be used.

Get more information on how to plan and execute a successful interview session with this checklist.

Related Content