The Importance of Oral History For A Genealogist

July 27, 2016

Written by: Jake Fletcher

Records do not tell the whole story of who someone was.

There is so much you can gain out of talking with other relatives who knew the person. That should go without saying, but if you think about, no genealogical record can shed light on the complexity of a person like the oral history given by relatives who talk about being with that person.

That is the revelation I had after several cousins messaged me through my blog. About three months ago, I had posted about my great-grand aunt Mildred Fleischhauer and they wanted to tell me about how they knew her as a grandmother.

While I had uncovered part of her life history through records, I never would have learned she was a career woman who spent 30 years at Lord & Taylor, had many famous acquaintances, and that she was an inspiration to her granddaughter.

Furthermore, the clues I gained from interviewing people and recording oral history inspired me to do more research.

Collecting oral history is important for anyone who assumes the task of being a family historian or genealogist. As a professional genealogist, I am grateful for the amazing stories that not only family members, but clients have to share with me.

It’s an amazing part of my job where I get to work with people to help contextualize their legacy and at the same time, learn about an important part of who we are.

If you have just received a curiosity in family history or have been doing it for sometime, have you reached out to your relatives to ask questions? No one starting to work on genealogy should overlook family sources, as they provide often the most vital clues.

In addition to all the stories I’ve collected in the past year, because family members were aware of what I do, I’ve received a plethora of family documents and it’s hard to know where to begin!

Choosing a method of communication is important when collecting history from relatives, whether it be online, telephone, or in person. Because of the online presence I’ve established, i.e. my blog, I’ve been able to connect with relatives from several countries and we often exchange e-mails.

I have had conversations with some on the phone. And in the past, I’ve tried to take notes, but it’s difficult to fully transcribe a conversation.

There are apps for smartphones that can record a conversation and allow for the creation of a permanent record. I would highly recommend you look into this because it allows your to listen and analyze the recordings.

The same types of technology including handheld recording devices and cameras can be used when conducting in-person interviews. Ask permission if you want to use technology and explain the importance of why you need to use it.

You may have heard this already, but prepare for interviews with questions. Your research may help guide you in determining the questions you want to ask, but be careful if something you find touches on sensitive information.

It’s better to develop things around their life chronology, starting with vital information and asking them to talk about milestones and major events in their life. If they mention people who are older and precede them in generations, ask them to provide information on what they know about them.

Whatever you end up with, archive it like any other source you have used in your research. Make back-up copies whenever you can. I like to print out my e-mails and correspondence with relatives and file them with other family papers.

How you work with and analyze the oral histories depends on the project. Maybe a full or partial transcription will be necessary, because you want to incorporate the stories into a future product like a family history narrative. With the ability to upload content online, you can insert recording or video clips into an online web page for your family history or within some legacy websites.

Using traditional genealogical records with other sources of information is important for accurate research and understanding the full story. Collecting oral history can bring a lot of meaning to your role as a family historian because you end up an amazing source of insight into your ancestor’s lives that you wouldn’t have had if you just looked through the records.

Jake FletcherJake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).