Young child whispering story to his grandmother

Collect an Oral History

Over the holidays, different generations often come from near and far to spend time together. This winter, take the opportunity to record an oral history with an elder you treasure (or even one you don’t!). The equipment needed is handy and inexpensive, and there are many helpful resources on the internet.

What is an Oral History?
The Oral History Association defines it as “the systematic collection of a person’s testimony about their experiences.” In a project, a subject recalls events to an interviewer, who records them to create a first-hand account. The recording can be kept within the family or shared with a state or local historical society or the Library of Congress.

The Development of the Oral History
Oral histories are stories, and storytelling is in our DNA. From the dawn of humankind to the digital age, they have transmitted our history, lineage and culture. They are vital to our being because they clarify life’s meaning.

The first stories were told though simple sounds and gesticulations, and in images painted in caves. Once we acquired language, these narratives passed from generation to generation through the spoken word. The advent of writing added diaries, letters and formal histories to our repertoire.

The modern iteration of the oral history, the recording of interviews with individuals, began in the 1940s. It came to fruition in the 1960s with the introduction of inexpensive portable tape recorders.

Why Create an Oral History?
With digital technology and the proliferation of social media, hand-written letters and diaries are fast disappearing. Our family photos are now often kept not in our homes but on server farms. The era of discovering a treasure trove of correspondence, diaries and yellowed images in the attic may be ending.

This makes the collection of oral histories more vital than ever. While genealogy reveals part of our heritage, our elders can flesh out the names and dates with memories of everyday life and important events, providing rich insight into our past.

Historians, too, value the accounts of ordinary folks; they add texture and color to the larger historical milieu. You can aid scholars by collecting these stories.

How to Collect an Oral History
The tools are simple and affordable: a digital voice or video recorder and an external microphone. Be sure both work well and you know how use them. It can be disheartening to have had a wonderful session, only to find out later that it is hard to hear or, worse yet, nonexistent.

You can choose to be casual or systematic when planning an oral history, but some preparation is needed. At a minimum, a bit of research on your subject’s life is necessary, either through conversations with those who know them, or via public or private records. Look at the history of their times, locally, nationally, and worldwide. They may have been in a war, survived a disaster, or witnessed the first moon landing.

Once your research is finished, make a list of open-ended questions. Include queries about their home life, growing up, relatives, and how they met their spouse or why they never married. Inquire about their work, especially if their industry or job is rare or no longer exists. Get their impressions of the significant events of their times and the political issues of their youth and today. Don’t forget to capture the big picture by asking them to offer a philosophy on life and a message to their descendants.

Conducting the Interview
If your subject is shy, or feels they have nothing to offer, start by asking for a story they are fond of telling, or about someone close to them. On the other hand, some people are more than willing to share, so be prepared with lots of disk space! Loquacious or not, be careful not to wear them out by trying to do the entire interview in one sitting. If possible, set aside more than one day for their narrative.

Do It Now!
This holiday season, do not miss the opportunity to save your family’s history. Time passes so quickly, and once a person is gone, their memories and wonderful stories (even those you have heard a hundred times) will be gone…forever. So, find a family member or friend who has more years behind than ahead. Sit down in a quiet place and give them room to tell their story and share their perspective on life. It is a great gift. It will provide your family, and the world, with a window into the past for generations to come.

A Request
Include a note with any family history, be it digital recordings, photos, or ephemera, asking those who inherit them to give them to a historical society or university if they ever feel they are a burden to keep.



Oral history defined:

A Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History, by Judith Moyer,, 1993:


Suggested questions and an outline:

StoryCorps (a non-profit organization that collects stories from a diversity of Americans):


There are many other resources on the web. Just type “oral histories” into your search engine.

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