AncestorNews: Recording Oral Histories

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

One of the first things genealogists learn is to collect data at home, including birth certificates, baptismal records, obituaries, school records and funeral cards. In addition, it’s critical to talk to older relatives about the family members they knew, and those they remember hearing about. As I mentioned in another column, one of my research breakthroughs was based on something I’d heard my grandmother say when I was very young.

When you’re recording oral history, don’t forget to write down tidbits that may have no bearing on your research, but are interesting views of a time gone by. For example, my mom recently told me that when she was a kid, the only people who wore tennis shoes to school were the very poor. Those kinds of cultural observations are difficult to find in books—so record them too, or else your descendants will never know that Nike didn’t always rule the footwear world.

Oral histories can be as formal as scheduling an interview time and arriving with a list of prepared questions, a tape recorder or video camera. Or, they can be as off-the-cuff as the conversations I have with my mom and aunt about the family. The key, of course, is to enter the information into your genealogy software as soon as possible, and make copies to send other family members.

I don’t know if it’s post-9/11 fallout, but there’s been quite a resurgence in the popularity of preserving oral histories. In fact, some local historical societies are actively soliciting people to come in and record their oral histories. AARP even has a free online course on how to record veterans’ oral histories.

To learn more about preserving family memories through oral histories:

Tips for preserving oral histories

Interviewing relatives

Oral history projects

Oral history questions