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How to Collect Family Oral Histories

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Stories are incredibly powerful ways to connect families.

Take my grandfather’s stories. He was never a man to brag, but by asking him a few questions, I discovered that he lived a remarkable life. One year, I spent several winter afternoons with him and a tape recorder, asking him to tell me his favorite memories.

He talked about growing up on a farm, his first job as a bus driver, and the joy he felt when he met my grandmother for the first time. The recordings I made of our conversations caught every inflection and nuance in his tales. Even years later, I listen to them remember the man that he was.

By making a conscious effort to collect and record these stories, you’ll gain a new understanding and appreciation of the people you love, preserve their precious memories, and give others the chance to know them as well.

How to Get the Best Stories

Here are a few guidelines to help you make the most of these opportunities.

  1. Prepare wisely.  Even if your subject is a fantastic storyteller, provide a day or two of advance notice, which will give him or her time to think of favorite stories. And plan to chat for no more than 90 minutes because while the time can be rewarding, but can also be exhausting. Bring a tape recorder or download a recorder on your smartphone. Recording the session can be less distracting than trying to write or type notes of the conversation.
  2. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t get bogged down collecting dates and locations. Instead, encourage your relative to share meaningful experiences in their lives. Ask questions that begin with “Can you tell me about…?” or “What do you remember about…?” Going through a photo album with them can also spark memories and stories.A few ideas:
    • What do you remember about your childhood? Your parents?
    • What historical events have taken place in your lifetime? What do you remember abou that time?
    • Tell me about your first job.
    • What is a brave thing that you’ve done? A dumb thing?

    What would I be surprised to learn about you?

  3. Approach the interview as a conversation, not an interrogation. While you should have a few questions ready, don’t be afraid to veer off that list, follow up when you want to know more, or explore areas you hadn’t considered. Listen closely to person you’re talking to — and let him or her help guide the discussion.
  4. Remember that the interview is a beginning, not an end. After you’ve wrapped up the interview, be sure to label the recording with names, dates, and a brief description. Even better, take time to transcribe the recording or hire someone to do so.

Share Your Favorite Family Stories Too

CaringBridge is all about keeping families connected, and now we see how shared stories can do just that. Do you have a unique story you’d like to share about yourself, or someone in your family? We’d love to read it.

About the Author:

Erin Peterson is a writer based in Minneapolis.

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1 Reply

  • By BestOfHomeCare.com

    My grandmother doesn’t remember much nowadays, but if you ask her about raising my father and his siblings, she remembers all kinds of details. Most seniors love thinking back on the past and sharing stories. Most importantly, they want to feel like you actually care about what they’re saying.

    Great post, thanks so much.