By combining technology with time-honored techniques of interviewing and storytelling, this holiday season can be an ideal time for people to hear and preserve eyewitness accounts of life experiences from loved ones for future generations, says an historian at Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History.
“One thing almost all Americans share is regret that when we were children, we did not listen better when our parents, grandparents and older relatives or friends told stories about people and places alive only in their memories,” said Lois Myers, associate director of the institute. “Such oral traditions may be the most fragile links to our family history.”
With sound or video recordings, people can uncover and preserve the origins of family rituals — such as holiday celebrations, common sayings or even recipes, Myers said.
“Today’s technology makes it possible to record the voices of your family storytellers, not only to keep the story alive but also to preserve accurately their version of the story in their own words,” she said. “Recordings allow family historians to capture the stories of those reluctant relatives who may never write their stories. Recording also inspires creatively sharing with younger generations through web presentations and audio or video documentaries.”
One of Myers’ favorite interviewees, a woman born in 1909 and now deceased, recalled childhood Christmases. The family never put up a Christmas tree or decorative stockings, but “just our regular socks,” filled with such inexpensive goodies as nuts, apples, oranges or a comb, the woman said.
Myers shared some suggestions for generating memory talk among family members:
- Encourage the storyteller to concentrate on one memory at a time, describing sight, sound, smell, touch or taste.
- Generate stories from word association prompts, such as emotions, “firsts” (first car, job, home, date, vote) or “favorites” (book, food, movie, TV show or hobby).
- Create personal stories using life stages alongside a chronology of significant historical events over the decades. What was it like being a child during the Cold War? What music did you listen to in the 1970s?
- Devise a memory map of important twists and turns in the road of life — events, decisions, people or possessions.
- Even with family members, it’s wise to develop an interview agreement form acknowledging the informant’s voluntary donation of information, transferring the interviewee’s rights to the researcher and addressing permission or restrictions for publication and distribution.
- Whenever possible, make your family oral history an intergenerational experience. Invite young family members to contribute questions or do the interviews. Interview the children.
- For a relaxed, candid interview, allow the informant time to prepare. Fully explain the purpose of the interview.
- Prompt memory recall through challenging and perceptive inquiries. Ask broad, open-ended questions; be a good listener; and allow the interviewee time to think.
- Introduce every recording with a statement of the date and place of the interview, the full names of the interviewer and interviewee and the purpose of the project.
- When difficult situations arise, use tact, persistence and respect. Allow narrators to give their own interpretations. Avoid burdening the story with your own perspectives, which may not reflect the narrator’s life and times.
- Think far into the future about who will take care of the histories you collect. Since most family history also contains stories of community interest, consider placing interview copies in a local archive or library.
The Baylor University Institute for Oral History provides help for creating and preserving your family’s oral histories. Learn more by visiting their webpage.
Photo courtesy the Southern Oral History Program.