The Oral Interview

Countless civil, military, and religious records are available for family researchers looking for information on ancestors, yet right under our nose is an often overlooked free genealogical repository: The Oral Interview.  Nothing better tells the story of family than stories shared by parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  These stories will never end up as permanent court documents, yet they absolutely define the collective memory of the storyteller and their family.  Often, as we sit around the holiday table, we share family histories – but did you ever go home and write down that story?  Did a relative ever show you an ancestor’s photograph, yet did you make a scan of it and write down the information they gave you?  Have you ever asked for a favorite family recipe and did you neglect to write down a short historical biography about the recipe?  These are the living histories we tend to overlook and it is time to capture them before we lose them forever.

Getting Started
Start by making a list of who you want to interview. Think about the personal narratives they can share with you…cultural influences, critical events, adversity narratives, wedding, birth and death announcements, etc.  Set up a time when you can have a distraction free interview.  Ask if they have any special heirlooms they want to tell a story about – a relevant photograph, a piece of jewelry, fine China or pottery, a family Bible, court documents, and the like. Organize your interview to include objects that spark their memory.  Write questions that you want answers too, but be prepared to go off topic.  Remember, preparation is 98% of the job.

The Oral Interview
Ask if it is agreeable to video or record the interview. Some might be reluctant for electronically recorded interviews.  If uncomfortable with the electronic format, be prepared to write down as much as you can and upon returning home, fill in the fine details; it will be fresh in your memory at this time.  Take pictures of heirlooms, as well as your interviewee.  Always begin with open ended questions: “Can you tell me about…,” “What do you remember…,” “What comes to your mind…” Once the story is being told, you can ask more detailed-oriented questions. This is the methodology behind obtaining information about your relative’s life journey.

Post-Organizing the Interview
Upon returning home, finish documenting anything you did not have time to record during the interview – you will have better recall of fine details at this point. Download images taken and make appropriate notations.  Recreate the life story about your family member.

Oral interviews are a healthy and stimulating activity for our aging generation – giving them purpose while stimulating their memories. The oral interview can be engaging and bonding between the interviewer and interviewee.  Because the information is based on a person’s knowledge, it can be considered a primary source.  The unique information derived from an oral interview is priceless and offers validation and credibility to the social history of the family.  This type of repository can fill in details of your pedigree chart while creating a unique background and perspective to your family.

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