During the holiday season as families gather for celebrations, children experience a heightened curiosity about their families. Parents can harness this curiosity by enlisting their children’s help in creating an archive of family stories.
After all, knowing your family tree is one thing, but fleshing it out with real-life stories makes it all the more interesting. It’s a way to show your child that history is made up of fascinating memories and anecdotes. Add to that the compelling reason that if your don’t gather your stories now, they could be lost forever.
Recording family stories is relatively easy to do and you’ll always be glad that you did it. Children can assist with all aspects of the project. In fact, many middle- and high-schoolers will gladly tackle the whole thing by themselves.
Make a list of questions. Try to get everything in one interview, as the first interview is often the best, and you never know when you’ll be able to get your interviewee back again.
In addition to asking “who, what, where and when” questions, be sure to ask some open-ended questions.
For example, you might ask:
- What do you know about your ancestry that you would like to preserve for future generations?
- Who among these ancestors did you know personally and what were they like?
- Where was your childhood home? Is it still there? Has the neighborhood changed?
- What was your favorite job? Least favorite?
- Where did you travel? What places were the most interesting to you?
- Who were the most influential people in you life? Describe what they did that influenced you.
- Was there a family tradition that you loved that isn’t practiced anymore?
- Was there an epidemic or health scare when you were younger that made a lasting impression upon you? A natural disaster?
- What were some of your mother’s (and father’s) good characteristics?
- What is your favorite memory of your father (and mother)?
- How do you remember your mother and father looking?
- Tell a story about your parents.
- What was your favorite food, game or toy?
- Who was your best friend?
- What did you do on Saturday afternoons?
- What do you remember about school?
Good interviewers refrain from interrupting. Ask the question and then let the person respond without your interjections or comments. Sometimes the temptation to jump in and start a conversation is great, but keep in mind that this is a recording of someone’s memories, not a family free-for-all. Never stop the interviewee’s remembering. Memory is fragile and a flow of thoughts can lead someone to uncover something that they haven’t thought of in years.
If at all possible be sure to let your subjects know in advance that you’d like to interview them. It’s only polite! Some people won’t need advance notice and will gladly participate on a moment’s notice, but others may need time to mentally prepare. You can help prime the pump by having a few old photographs on hand to help bring back the memories.
Place the microphone near the interviewee. Test the recording levels first by recording a snippet of conversation and then playing it back.
Some people become nervous at the sight of a microphone. If you find this to be the case, place the microphone somewhere where it is inconspicuous, but close enough to get a good recording level.
Have extra tapes and batteries available. It can be very disappointing to run out of tape or batteries in the middle of a good story! Recording stories on video has become easier with new technologies. Many cell phones and digital cameras now have video-recording capacity, and regular video cameras have become smaller, inexpensive and easier to operate. After filming your interview, you can even share it with others by uploading it to YouTube.
After the Interview
You can transfer all of your interviews to a CD, or you can transcribe them and compile a homemade book.
If you’re aiming for a book, always factor in plenty of time to transcribe the tapes. This step in the process can be time-consuming, but it is often the most satisfying as you see it all coming together.
If you’re tempted to skip the transcribing and just toss the tapes into a box for future generations to sort through, don’t! Audio formats change quickly and what you think is the latest and greatest will in all likelihood be obsolete in a few years.
The smart way to transcribe is to be selective. Transcribe only those sections that are worth keeping.
The Final Product
Your oral histories can be organized in many different ways. For example, you could:
- Create a book with a chapter for each family member.
- Group the stories according to stages of life, such as “Growing Up During the Depression,” “A Childhood in Florida,” “Experiencing Salt Lake City in the Sixties.”
- Select the juiciest sections and create your own short story collection, with titles like “A New Dad,” “The Youngest of Ten,” and “How Grandpa Killed a Chicken for Sunday Dinner.”
The possibilities are endless and your family will be thrilled that their histories are being preserved. And illustrating your collection with photographs is simply icing on the cake.