Oral History: Remembering Yesterday for a Better Tomorrow


Tips for a Family Oral History Project at Home

Sarah Jennings has been a caregiver her whole life and involved in the Veterans History Project for the Library of Congress since 2004. She currently writes on behalf of Brookdale assisted living.

oral history projectRecently, at the funeral of the grandfather of a friend, I chatted with some relatives of the man who had passed and listened as they fondly recollected and reminisced anecdotally about his life: his upbringing on a farmstead on the prairies of north-central Montana, education in a one-room schoolhouse situated on the Musselshell River, love of the local high school’s athletic teams, his renowned ability to catch trout no matter what time of year.

But what was most interesting to me and perhaps unsettling to his friends and family was his time spent in the service during World War Two, something that apparently was not especially well-known to those who knew him.

Upon his death and at the discretion of a national veteran’s organization it became known that he was a member of a B-17G bomber crew that completed 22 missions over enemy territory and was awarded the Purple Heart and Air Medal before being shot down over Germany and being made a POW in the spring of 1944. While his wife and children were vaguely aware of their husband’s and father’s service in the Army Air Corps during “the war” they were simply unaware of what this exactly entailed: his training in Utah, airbase life in East Anglia, the friends he made, the friends he lost, the impact on his young psyche of air combat at 30,000 feet against unfavorable odds, life in a Stalag—in short, the experience of being a 20 year old asked to give so much for his country.

“I didn’t even think to ask,” stated his oldest daughter, tears in her eyes, as we looked at his medals, yellow-winged patches, flight and pay books, and pictures of a young man surrounded by other young men, smiling with arms slung over shoulders, masking what they must have felt inside. “He was just so modest and preferred to acknowledge others for their achievements, never his own. To him his family was the most important thing in life. He kept this stuff tucked away in a trunk in the attic until the day he died. Now I know I should have.”

The Case for Oral History

Oral history is the systematic acquisition, study, and archiving of historical, cultural, anthropological, and sociological information about living individuals, peoples, families, etc. using various forms of media like audio and videotapes or transcripts of interviews planned in advance. This advanced planning of interviews allows for the interviewee to properly prepare and formulate recollections of events that may have taken place decades in the past and becomes a living testimony to their experiences.

Oral history interviews are conducted by historians, family members, advocates, scientists, etc. with people who engaged in or were witness to events taking place in the past and whose insight, memories, and perception are to be captured and preserved for posterity.

Well-practiced oral historians do indeed attempt to verify the findings, claims, suggestions, assertions, etc. made by interviewees in order to separate historical fact and actual events from fiction, folklore, hearsay etc. and to provide accurate and authentic historical context to the information provided.

The unique nature of oral history seeks to collect information from assorted and diverse perspectives which are generally not found in print or written sources. Additionally, these efforts pertain to everyone, not just the well-known, famous, or notable, who may have a story to share with the idea that by not collecting and preserving these perspectives and memories they will be lost forever.

Throughout time, most people have learned about past events and history via the spoken word. Primitive peoples have relied on oral traditions for centuries to preserve a record of their societies’ past due to the absence of written histories, passing the information from generation to generation in the form of storytelling. However, oral history differs from oral tradition in as much as it is recorded and archived for access by future generations, scholars and academics, and others interested in history and all this entails.

Creating an Oral History

Each and every one of us has a story to tell and our stories and those of the community around us are invaluable treasures to be cherished. This is especially relevant to older generations and those who were active participants and observers in eras long since passed.

Families can discover and preserve that unwritten familial history, both great and small, using oral history methods. The flexible nature of oral history is such that people of all ages, young and old, can utilize the techniques of inquiring, listening, and recording to get a better understanding of history and the narratives that help comprise it. Oral history is enriching both to the interviewer and interviewee as well as those generations to come who will be exposed to what is collected.

Getting Started

On the cameraIn oral history, the person undergoing the interview recalls an event, occurrence, or circumstance from memory and articulates it verbally for an interviewer who records these recollections, creating a historical account. This chronicle can be achieved in various manners, from simply taking notes by hand to video and electronic aural recordings.

Determine Who to Interview

We all can likely identify someone within our family or community who is a worthy candidate for collecting an oral history. When a likely candidate is identified, explain to them the purpose of the project and take measures to assure they understand all that the interview will entail, including it being shared with others.

Upon identifying a suitable candidate, do some preliminary research and establish some research goals. Get a general understanding of the nature of the individual chosen, their social cohort, background, etc.

Topics and Questions

Once the research is complete a list of topics and questions can be compiled. Generally, it is good practice to have a broad collection of topics as opposed to specific, sequential, word-for-word questions. However, it is not a bad idea to have a short list of initial questions in order to promote comfortability and to “break the ice” before delving into the interview proper.

Before proceeding be aware and sensitive to the nature, content and potential impact of the questions being asked and what they may evoke in the subject. Have a contingency plan developed to account for emotional responses or outright refusals to discuss certain information.

Before the interview, make a checklist of things that must be done before the interview commences, while it is in progress, and upon its completion. This assures that no stone is left unturned.

Interview Location

Finding a suitable interview location is key, as it may mean the difference between an informative and pleasant listening/viewing experience or a garbled mess that fails to live up to the purpose and goal of the endeavor.

Choose a quiet, comfortable place to interview and record and when preparing for the interview make any necessary adjustment to assure that the locale remains suitable for the duration. Turn the phone to vibrate, close doors and affix with a sign reading: “Quiet Please-Recording in Progress,” put pets outside, etc.

The Interview

As the interview subject is seated, make sure he or she is situated in close proximity to the recording device or if a camera is being used situate it behind the interviewer, just over their shoulder. This allows the respondent to look into the camera while also looking at the interviewer.

Begin each recording with archival information stating who, when, and where you are interviewing.

Once the participant is settled, ask a question that may evoke a longer answer. This may act as a catalyst to get the interview going and set the stage for follow-up questions, which should be lighter and less complex initially and build into more complicated, probing, or difficult questions once a rapport has been established.

It is also important for the interviewer to ask questions one at a time, allow for moments of reflection, thought, and silence, listen intently, make eye contact, and use body language like smiling, nodding, etc. that indicate interest. Verbal cues and encouragement may also be necessary to keep the momentum going, though it is essential to not speak at the same time as the subject, as may explanations in greater detail or citing specific examples.

Request definitions of words and terminology that the subject may use that are contextually important for the interview and rephrase substantive questions as many times as necessary in order to glean all the information and insight the subject knows.

Phrase questions such that answers are provided in longer form as opposed to a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Address exactly what the subject did as well as how they thought or felt with regard to their actions, participation, etc. Ask ample follow-up questions and allow the subject the opportunity to introduce their own topics.

While some interviews may require more time, it is good policy to limit interview lengths to no longer than two hours per session. This will vary depending on the individual, their ability to deal with fatigue, emotional stress, etc.

End the interview with affable, lighter conversation and thank the interviewee for participating.

Once the interview is complete, it is up to the collector to decide what is to be done with the information collected. If the interview was video or audio taped it may be edited, set to music, and distributed to family members and friends on a DVD or CD. If the interview was transcribed in writing it can be edited and compiled into an easy-to-read, book-like format and distributed with a corresponding jacket.

Regardless, the collection of an oral history interview suggests a reverence and respect for others and provides an opportunity to grab and hold an invaluable component of by-gone times, allowing for a better understanding of the future…all by simply “thinking to ask.”



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