Written by: Terry Kelly and Tara Dolgner
Recording Family History
As children, some of us may remember our grandparents telling us stories of their childhoods, while some of us might have been fixated on the shiny object peeking out from under the couch. As adults, we’ve grown wiser and wish we had written down all of those stories (or paid better attention) when we were children.
Documenting family history is so important in order to record the stories you can’t find in census reports or death certificates. Census reports, death certificates, and other documents provide clues and bits of information, but an oral history takes all of the information to tell the story of your ancestor’s life.
What is an oral history?
Oral history provides an opportunity to gather historical stories from family members, neighbors, or other relatives who have personal knowledge of past events.
But why is this so important?
By doing an oral history, you will find out information that you never would otherwise. For example, when I completed an oral history with my dad, I learned that as a child he liked to go to movies by himself (his uncle managed the theatres in town), that his father caught him smoking when he was 16 years old, and when he was in the Army, he was one of two soldiers selected for officer candidate school.
I also treasure that I have a recording of his voice.
How do you go about doing an oral or written history?
There are several resources that help you get started.
You may want to provide a questionnaire and let your loved ones fill it out at their conveniences. Or, you may want to schedule time to meet with your family members while recording your oral history.
Or, you can take it one step further by setting up a video camera to record your session. You and your family members may not have the stamina to complete your oral history in one session, so think about breaking it up into smaller chunks of time (maybe in hour increments).
Here is a link to some oral history questions from UCLA’s Center for Oral History Research to get you started. Feel free to revise and adjust for your family. Let the process be fluid – as you go along, there may be additional questions that come out of your discussion.
Another helpful resource is this Oral History Toolkit provided by Judith Moyer. This toolkit provides step-by-step instructions on how to get started on your Oral History project.
Your oral history recording or video will be a family treasure for generations to come. Start interviewing the older members in your family today.