How to record an oral history: Preserve & save family stories

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In this Nov. 27, 2015, file photo, Rhiannon Leonard interviews her boss, Gary Himes in Weverton, Md., for StoryCorps’ Great Thanksgiving Listen oral history project.

AP

What do you know about your family’s history?

Maybe someone in your family marched for civil rights or immigrated from another country. Maybe there was an interesting element to the way they grew up.

Even if you know the answers to some of the questions about your family’s past, you may not have the stories behind them preserved in a lasting way. And as difficult as it can be to think about, there will be a time when the older generations are no longer around to recount them.

But there’s a fairly easy and inexpensive way to ensure that the firsthand accounts live on: oral histories.

With smartphones, it’s easier than ever to record members of your family sharing their history, preserving valuable insights into your family’s past — an important and meaningful endeavor, whether your family played a significant role in a historical event or lived a comparatively normal, ordinary life.

To learn more about why recording oral histories can be an important tool, plus to get tips and best practices for doing so, The News & Observer consulted resources from the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP), part of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Oral History Association and the American Folklife Center. We also spoke with Sara Wood, a program manager with SOHP.

Here’s what we learned.

What is an oral history?

In the most basic sense, an oral history is an account of history, or events in the past, that is told and spoken aloud through an interview.

The Oral History Association (OHA) cites a passage from “Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide,” a book by Donald Ritchie, that says: “Oral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.”

In this sense, OHA says, oral histories are “the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word.” Even before people could physically write their histories down, they engaged in the traditional act of storytelling, passing down history, often told in stories, through generations.

But in other ways, OHA says, oral histories are “one of the most modern” forms of history, as the advent of tape recorders in the early-to-mid-20th century brought technological advances to the field that continue today with the digital technology, such as smartphones, of the 21st century.

Citing Ritchie, OHA says that oral histories do not include “random taping,” “recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.”

Oral histories are often collected for academic or research purposes, but they can also be used as a way to document and preserve family histories for personal use. Both endeavors in oral history are “equally important,” said SOHP’s Sara Wood.

Why are oral histories important?

Oral histories allow people to share, in their own words, their personal histories, as well as how larger historical events impacted or shaped their lives.

While you can look in books or other historical records for dates, street names and other facts, Wood said, those resources sometimes lack the firsthand accounts, in their own words, of people who lived through those things.

“I think that’s what is the best part of oral history, is you’re getting to meet someone where they are and getting them to tell the story for themselves versus putting words in their mouth or just including them in a group,” Wood said. “And that can happen if it’s an academic project or if it’s somebody interviewing their grandfather.”

The American Folklife Center says recording oral histories “can be a very effective way of capturing information that is difficult to obtain by any other means.”

Use with existing artifacts: Oral histories can be used by themselves to document a family’s history, though they also add more value to existing family artifacts, such as pictures. Oral histories allow the stories behind those documents to live on in a family member’s own words and voice.

And even if you think your family’s experiences aren’t historically significant or are too ordinary to document, there is value in recording it.

A chance to bond: Even the most basic stories from someone’s life can become a treasured memory once they’re no longer around to tell you that story directly. Recording those memories can be a valuable tool that not only preserves part of your family’s history, but it can also create new memories in the process of recording them — time spent bonding with a family member or loved one.

“I think that everybody has a really rich life,” Wood said.

How do oral histories work?

Again citing Donald Ritchie’s “Doing Oral History,” OHA explains that oral histories typically follow this format:

A “well-prepared interviewer” asks questions of an interviewee and records their exchange in audio or video format. The questions typically revolve around the interviewee’s life and their connection to a historical event or period.

Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized or indexed. The recordings are often placed in a library or archives, especially when they are used in an academic context or for research.

“The interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation,” Ritchie says.

But if you’re recording the histories just for your family’s personal use, you generally won’t be obligated to publish the interviews publicly, and you can decide to keep them for your family only.

It’s important, though, to discuss these expectations and decisions with your interviewee throughout the process — they should have a say in your final decision for where to house or keep the finished product.

Preparing for an oral history project

If you’re interested in recording an oral history for your family, or even if you’re still on the fence about it, there are key questions and ideas to consider before you dive into recording, including these from the American Folklife Center:

Determine your goals for your project. Consider these questions: Why are you interested in recording this project? What do you want to learn, and what topics will you explore in your interviews? Will the interview focus on a particular event or time period, or will it be more biographical, spanning large portions of the interviewee’s life? Who will you interview, and why are they a good candidate to talk about the topics you’ve identified? What will the outcome of the project be — do you intend to keep the recordings for your family’s personal use, or do you wish to donate them to an archive or other repository?

Educate yourself about oral histories and the components required. While we hope this story and the information provided here provides you with a starting point for your project, we know that it isn’t a comprehensive guide, and there’s always more to learn.

We recommend checking out the resources we’ve used here, including SOHP, OHA and the American Folklife Center, for more comprehensive information about oral histories.

Determine the scope of your project. If you’re recording oral histories with one member of your family, the scope of your project could be pretty small — maybe one or two interviews, each lasting a couple hours, depending on which events you’re discussing or what you’re hoping to learn.

But if you’re recording histories with multiple family members, or even working on a larger, community-based project, the scope could be much larger — maybe multiple interviews, spread over a few months, with more than one person. It’s important to think about the scope of your proposed project before you begin, that way you can plan ahead.

Conduct preliminary research. Do you have a specific historical event in mind that you’d like to ask your family about? It’s a good idea to conduct some research about that event before you begin recording so that your questions will be informed. You can apply this same idea to family stories that you might be hoping to ask about — try looking through old photos or writings from your family, as it could bring up additional ideas or questions for your interview.

Determine what equipment you’ll need. Luckily, in the age of smartphones, most of us have a recording device handy, but you may decide instead to use a recorder with better sound quality. Also, think about transcribing your interview after you’re done — will you want to use a transcription service, or will you do the work by hand? Do you just want to record audio, or will you also record a video?

You don’t have to buy new equipment, Wood said, but make sure you know how to use the equipment you have. If you’re using your phone, that could mean downloading an app, though most phones come with a built-in recording app.

Discuss the project with the interviewee and get their permission. While you likely have a specific person in mind to interview, you’ll need to get their permission and discuss the project with them before beginning. Talk with them about your intentions for the project, and be aware of any hesitations or nerves they show. These will be important to address before you begin recording. Wood recommended making the project a collaboration between you and the interviewee, using their input throughout the project and making them feel heard and included.

Determine what you’d like to do with the recordings after you’re done. If you’re recording a history that you intend to keep in your family, there generally won’t be an obligation to donate it to an archive. But if you decide you would like to donate your project, it will be helpful to determine that in advance, as there will likely be additional paperwork to complete and other requirements that you’ll need to be aware of as you work on the project.

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In this 2015 photo, Prakhar Joshi, left, asks a question to 86-year old Desh Raj Kalra during an interview at his residence in New Delhi, India. Joshi spent 15 months crisscrossing the country interviewing about 150 people to record oral histories, including the partition of India. Altaf Qadri AP

Tips for recording an oral history: The interview

Once you’re ready to conduct an oral history interview, it will be helpful to keep in mind the following tips from the Southern Oral History Program and the American Folklife Center.

Set aside enough time for the interview. SOHP recommends budgeting at least two hours for each interview you conduct, which should allow you enough time to set up your equipment, answer any questions your interviewee has, then conduct the interview. Wood recommended allowing time before you begin an interview for your interviewee to interview you, which could help ease their nerves and allow them to ask questions and better understand your goals for the interview.

Set up the interview in a quiet space. Conducting the interview in a quiet space will ensure that your interview includes no background noise or distractions. Make sure to turn off any TVs or radios that could be playing in the background.

“Slate” the interview on the recording. After you begin recording, but before you dive into questions, it’s a good idea introduce yourself and your interviewee and state the date and location of the interview. You should also ask the interviewee to introduce themselves.

The American Folklife Center provides the following example of slating an interview:

“Today is Thursday, September 18, 2008, and this is the start of an interview with Fred Johnson at his home at 601 McKinley Avenue, N.E., in Washington, DC. My name is Donna Johnson and I’ll be the interviewer. I’m Fred’s granddaughter and this interview is being done in connection with the history of the Johnson family. We’ll mainly be talking about my grandfather’s recollection of the family homestead in Litchfield, Connecticut.”

Keep your recorder on throughout the interview. Don’t turn the recorder on and off during your interview, unless your interviewee asks you to do so for a specific reason. You could miss important stories or information, and it could make the interviewee nervous that what they’re saying at a particular moment isn’t important.

Listen actively and stay engaged. While you’ll likely come into the interview with a set of questions written down, try to limit the time spent looking at or referencing your list. This could be a distraction for you or the interviewee, and you might miss valuable information that you’ll want to follow up on.

Don’t interrupt your interviewee. While it’s important to stay engaged and even ask follow-up questions, don’t interrupt the interviewee as they’re speaking. It could disrupt the flow of the interview, or even make them nervous or uncomfortable. You can use visual cues, such as eye contact or nodding, to provide encouragement.

Consider using photographs, maps or other resources during the interview. Visual aids, such as photos, could help jog your interviewee’s memory and elicit better stories or memories.

Include a brief closing announcement at the end of your interview. The American Folklife Center gives the following example of a closing to include in your recording:

“This is the end of the September 18, 2008, interview with Fred Johnson. The interviewer was Donna Johnson.”

Tips for recording an oral history: Questions to ask

The questions you ask during an oral history interview will largely depend on the goals and scope you determined for your project.

If you have a specific historical period or event in mind that you’d like to ask your interviewee about, you can tailor your questions to that. Likewise, if you want your interview to span more of the interviewee’s life and be more of an overarching biography, you can tailor your questions that way.

The Smithsonian Institute for Folklife & Cultural Heritage offers these specific questions that might be helpful to ask, depending on who you’re interviewing and your goals for the interview:

  • Where and when were you born?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • Where have you lived?
  • What jobs have you had?
  • What do you do for a living now?
  • What do you know about your family name? Are there stories about its history or origins?

  • Do you know any stories about how your family first came to the United States?

  • What stories have come down to you about your parents and grandparents?

  • What are some of your childhood memories?

  • How are holidays traditionally celebrated in your family?

  • What special food traditions does your family have?

  • What family heirlooms or keepsakes and mementos do you possess?

  • How have historical events affected your family and community?

Other tips to keep in mind for developing interview questions include:

Don’t ask leading questions. Do not ask a question like, “You had a great childhood, didn’t you?” because that suggests a correct, or acceptable, answer. Instead, try phrasing questions like, “What was your childhood like?” This allows the interviewee to give their own perspective that isn’t clouded by your question.

Try to avoid asking yes or no questions. Asking open-ended questions will give your interviewee more to talk about, which can elicit better, and often more complete, stories or memories.

Use follow-up questions when necessary. Asking follow-up questions can clarify important information in your interview. For example, if your interviewee talks about a specific event, it might be helpful to follow up and ask when the event happened.

Keep your questions short and simple. Try to avoid asking complicated, multi-part questions. Doing so can be confusing and overwhelming for your interviewee.

Don’t be nervous or upset if the interview veers away from your intended questions. “Be prepared to let your interviewee take the discussion off in different directions,” the American Folklife Center writes in its oral history guide. “This can sometimes lead to unexpected and exciting discoveries.”

Tips for recording an oral history: Sensitivity & ethics

You may find that your interviewee has difficult or traumatic events in their past, which could be hard for them to share during your interview. When you are interviewing someone in your family, it may also be hard for you to learn and process these things from your family’s past.

SOHP recommends starting with non-controversial topics, such as the interviewee’s childhood or basic information, to allow them to become more comfortable with you and the interview process. This could encourage them to open up to you later on.

If you reach a subject that your interviewee isn’t comfortable talking about, respect their decision. You may try to approach the topic from a different angle and seeing if they are more comfortable that way, but they might wish not to discuss it at all.

All of the organizations we’ve mentioned here have additional information and resources on ethics and sensitivity in oral history.

After recording an oral history

After you’re done recording your interview, you’ll need to think about how to store and save it.

Wood recommended saving at least three copies of the interview — one on a local source, such as your phone (if that’s where you recorded the interview), one on the digital “cloud” and one on an external hard drive. Keeping extra copies can ensure that you don’t lose the interview to technology errors or failures.

Wood also recommended taking a photo, or portrait, of your interviewee to store with the recording. It will provide a visual aid to the new document, especially if you recorded only audio, instead of a video. If you referenced any family photographs or other documents during the interview, it’s also a good idea to save copies of those and store them with the recording.

Once the recording is complete, you’ll likely want to transcribe it. This is an opportunity to provide a readable version of the interview, in addition to the recording. Once you’ve transcribed the interview, Wood said, it’s a good idea to give a copy to your interviewee for them to look over. They may be uncomfortable having a specific portion included, so this gives them an opportunity to provide feedback and collaborate on the final product.

While you should have discussed with your interviewee before recording the interview where the recording will be stored, it’s a good idea to bring it up again after the recording is done.

If you intend to keep the recording within your family, it’s a good idea to discuss who will receive copies of the recording. Do you want to keep them with the interviewee? Will all members of your immediate family receive one? Ask your interviewee what they’d prefer.

If you decide with your interviewee that you’d like to donate your recordings to an archive, there may be additional paperwork required. Check with your intended archive for more information.

Remember: Respect your interviewee’s wishes at all times during the process.

Additional resources for oral histories

To learn more about the Southern Oral History Program, located at UNC-Chapel Hill, visit sohp.org.

SOHP provides a list of useful oral history resources, including books and online links, at sohp.org/resources-2.

You can also email SOHP at sohp@unc.edu, or call the Center for the Study of the American South, where the program is housed, at 919-962-5665.

You can also find additional information and resources from the Oral History Association (oralhistory.org), the American Folklife Center (loc.gov/folklife) and the the Smithsonian Institute for Folklife & Cultural Heritage (folklife.si.edu).

Remember: We hope this guide can serve as a starting point for your family oral history projects, but we suggest doing more research if you have specific questions. The resources we’ve listed are full of useful information.

This story was originally published March 11, 2022 10:20 AM.

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Korie Dean is a reporter on The News & Observer’s service journalism team. She is a graduate of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill and a lifelong North Carolinian.



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