Great. But why should anyone bother to undertake this work? In Like It Was: A Complete Guide to Writing Oral History (Teachers & Writers Collaborative), Cynthia Stokes Brown notes that the information gleaned from oral history interviews may not be available elsewhere. Even better, interviews are opportunities to strengthen family relationships and explore your ancestors’ lives — a process that can be an enjoyable bonding experience for you and your interview subject.
Anita De Felice, president of Gifts of the Past, a family history keepsake company, <www.giftsofthepa5t.com>, emphasizes the beyond -just-the-facts benefits of interviewing relatives. “What you ideally hope to do is ‘add meat to the genealogical bones,’ to bring your family history to life by finding out the stories, meanings and perceptions behind the facts,” says De Felice. “For example, you know when your grandparents got married, but do you know how they met? How they courted? Or whether their parents approved of the marriage?”
Begin your preparation by deciding whom you’ll interview, “Sometimes, you start with a research question, and then you have to figure out who should be interviewed and how you would find them,” advises Sherna Berger Gluck, director of the Oral History Program at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) <www.csulb.edu/depts/history/relprm/oral01.html>. On the other hand, Gluck adds, you may already have in mind someone you’d like to interview — you’ll then need to do some background research on likely interview topics. If you’re planning to ask your uncle about his service in Korea, for example, it will help if you’ve read up beforehand on that historical episode.
Make a list of candidates and prioritize your interviews. If the primary goal is to add genealogical information to your family tree, you’d list 95-year-old second-cousin-once-removed Grace above your healthy uncle who’s 60. On the other hand, certain relatives may live much closer to your home than others, making them more accessible subjects. And some simply may be more open to being interviewed — start with these people if you’re a newbie. “First-time interviewers should consider beginning with a family member who is eager to tell his story, rather than one who is reluctant,” De Felice suggests.
Gather contact information for the people on your list and write each a letter requesting an interview. Letters often work better than phone calls for that first contact, especially with elderly relatives who may be hard of hearing. The letter needn’t be lengthy or complicated (for one thing, it won’t be your only communication, since you’ll be telephoning before the interview to confirm the date, time and location, anyway). But your note should provide a general idea of how much time the interviewee will have to invest and how you plan to conduct the interview.
In your letter, tell your subject how you plan to use her stories — in a family history, scrapbook, Web site or anything people besides you will see — and ask for her permission. Most families have touchy issues, such as divorce or an out-of-wedlock birth, so assure your interviewee that you won’t share any information she doesn’t want you to. CSULB’s Gluck suggests that after the interview, you record a statement listing how you plan to use the information. Then have your interviewee verbally agree.
If you plan to make the interview available to the public — say, submit it to a library or write about it in a journal article — use a more detailed release form like CSULB’s <www.csulb.edu/depts/history/relprm/oralprimer/OHagreeform.html>.
In a biographical interview, De Felice suggests asking about the “old neighborhood,” childhood responsibilities and playtime, courtship and marriage, childbirth, immigration experiences, the Great Depression, family food customs and holiday rituals, gender-role changes, wars, family secrets, individual family members, work stories and religious worship. See the sidebar at left for questions you can use in each type of interview.
During my interviews with my grandparents, I spent a lot of time on such nitty-gritty details as “When and where were you born?” “How many siblings did you have?” and so on. Since then, I’ve learned that it’s easier to get people to talk with open-ended questions — ones that require answers beyond a simple fact or two. For example, “Tell me about your best school friends,” or “Can you describe your elementary school teachers?” will produce more informative responses than “Who were your friends?” or “Who were your teachers?” Questions beginning with haw and why can yield intriguing answers, too.
To make sure you still get the facts you seek, consider asking your interviewee to fill out a fact sheet in advance. Interviewers for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Program <www.sohp.org>ask each participant to complete a life history form. This fact sheet requests biographical information such as the interviewee’s name and birthplace, spouse’s and children’s names, brief descriptions of educational background, employment history and a resume if one’s available. Yon can use the form on page 71 or devise your own version. Mail the form, and be sure to enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope so your relative can complete and return it before the interview. Then, bring it along to your meeting for reference.
Next, you’ll need to determine the nuts and bolts of how you’ll conduct the interview. Will you use audiotape or videotape? The main consideration really is your (and your interviewee’s) comfort level. If you’re fussing with a camera or seem intimidated by it, Grandma Mayme likely won’t be at ease, either. Or maybe Grandma bates being on film — if your heart’s set on video, check with her ahead of time. If you’re using a video camera or tape recorder with an external microphone, place it on a table to keep it steady and put it in a spot where it’ll capture both voices. Lapel microphones — one for each of you — work even better.
Make sure you have fresh batteries, and bring along extras. Gather the other supplies you’ll need: a camera for taking photographs of your interviewee, tissues in case things get emotional, a timer or wristwatch you can keep within view, a notepad and pens or pencils. During the interview, you won’t want to focus on taking word-for-word notes — it’s better to be fully engaged in what the other person is saying. But go ahead and jot down interesting phrases or ideas that you want to return to later in the interview or make sure to remember afterward. Bring copies of any photos you’d like the interviewee to identify, as well as other pictures, postcards, letters and heirlooms that will help the person reminisce.
Another option is to write a summary of the interview, with word-for-word transcriptions of key quotations. If you plan to submit the interview to an archive or use it to assist family members’ research, create a list of keywords, such as events, names and places, mentioned during the interview.
You also can hire a transcription service, such as TAPESCRIBE, based at the University of Connecticut Center for Oral History <vm.uconn.edu/-cohadm01>. Audiotape transcriptions cost $3 per double-spaced page; you’ll pay about $90 for a 60-minuite interview.