Hopefully this past Thanksgiving you were able to conduct a family history-focused oral history interview with one (or more!) of your willing relatives. In parts I and II of our oral history series, we went over why oral history is valuable to a family historian and some tips and tricks for conducting an oral history interview.
Now we'll take a look at exactly how to use the information you gathered to bolster your genealogical research.
Step one: Processing
Hopefully you followed our advice and used a digital recording device to capture your interview. If so, you now have a nicely sized audio file - but what to do with it?
Just like with genealogical records, there isn't much use if the only medium with this essential information is sitting on a shelf gathering dust. We need to get this audio transcribed into fully-searchable text! This step is very much considered the "grunt work" of oral history.
You have two choices - you can outsource the work by sending your audio file to a transcription service or do the work yourself. For a not-too-unreasonable fee, you can have the audio turned into a text document by a professional transcriber. The advantages here are time and convenience - transcribing audio is a valuable skill and not everyone is good at it. Even if you're a decent transcriber, it can take a very long time. Googling "professional transcription service" will give you plenty of options to browse.
Don't immediately jump at the idea of farming out the transcription though. There are advantages to doing it on your own. Obviously you will save the cost of having a professional transcribe it for you, but there's something even better.
Transcribing the interview yourself will give you an in-depth look at the stories.
You'll be forced to listen to each and every word (sometimes more than once), and this will help you absorb every last nugget of information your relative gave you in the interview. By the end of the process, you'll know the content of the interview far more intimately than if someone else transcribed it for you.
If you do decide to do the transcribing yourself, check out oTranscribe, a free web app that is helpful for DIY transcribers.
Step two: Analysis
Once you have a written transcript of the interview, you should read it over several times, each through a different lens.
First read: If you did a great job of planning ahead before conducting the interview, you will have a list of specific questions you wanted answered, specific pieces of information you were looking for, or specific stories you wanted recounted. Grab your list and read through the interview to gather the "low-hanging fruit". Highlight or underline this kind of information in blue or green.
Second read: After combing through the interview for information you were looking for, take a step back and open up your mind. You should read through the interview again, but this time highlight new, surprising or unexpected information you found. This should include previously unknown names, dates or places. Also include anything in here that seems to be mistaken or incorrect - it needs special attention later. Highlight or underline this kind of information in either red or orange.
Third read: Take one final read through with an eye towards future research. This time highlight any piece of information that can lead to more questions, further investigation or the need to interview someone else.
Each oral history interview is like a brick - always be thinking of the next piece you can add to build your wall higher.
Highlight these passages in purple or pink - you can use them to plan further interviews or investigation.
Step three: Synthesis
So you have a nice array of color coded facts from your interviews. Now it's time to get them integrated into your family history research. The exact way to do this will differ for each genealogist - everyone keeps track of their family story in a slightly different way. But regardless of how your information is organized, there are some general steps that you should follow.
Vetting: Remember that like any other piece of evidence, an oral history interview needs to be fully vetted for factuality and accuracy. This can be especially tricky, because so much of an oral history interview relies on historical memory, which can certainly get warped over time. This doesn't mean you should suspect deliberate dishonesty; many things can affect the accuracy of the information. The subject's relationship with the interviewer, the content being discussed, the way questions are phrased, and even the physical and mental state of the subject during the interview - all of these things have a definite influence on how people remember the past. Each new piece of information that you want to add to your carefully assembled annals of family history should be checked against existing documentation and research to make sure it is accurate. Categorize facts - confirmed, needs further investigation and disproved.
Integrating: Where does each piece of information fit into organization of your family history? Sometimes you'll have a destination in mind for new information - filling in a blank name or date from the family tree, adding information to a family member's personal file, etc. But if you don't, look no further than the document that contains the interview transcript. At the very top, being a summary or notes section and pull out all of the information you want to highlight. Remember, while you may have conducted this interview looking for specific information to add to your family tree, the oral history narrative itself is now a valuable part of your family's story.
the oral history narrative itself is now a valuable part of your family's story.
Sharing: The joy of conducting oral history interviews with family members is that now their historical memory can be preserved and shared. As long as you have permission from the subject, feel free to pass around the audio or transcript to family members who are interested. Those that missed out on Thanksgiving would love to catch up, and even those that were in attendance likely didn't hear the full interview. Remember to tell your family that you have transcribed and saved the interview, and added the content to your family history research. This will go a long way in inducing future interview subjects to come forward!
Do you have any tips or tricks from your oral history experience? Discover anything amazing on Thanksgiving? Let us know in the comments!