Even if you've conducted extensive family research, exhausted all the online databases and even tracked down rare records in person, chances are you can still make significant progress by doing some thorough oral history with your own family members.
In many contexts, oral history refers to the method certain cultures use to pass down history -- a rehearsed account of the past passed down between generations by an elder member of the community. While valuable and fascinating, this isn't what we mean when we speak of oral history in a genealogical context.
We're talking about a method of capturing historical narratives and preserving them for analysis and further research. This involves sitting down with a relative or family member and having a dialogue about their memory of the past. You'll use a digital recorder and then transcribe the interview to add to your records. It will undoubtedly contain surprising information that you did not previously know about your family members or family history.
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to interview your relatives while they're all in one place -- you'll learn amazing new stories and gather information that helps you dive even further into your family's history.
Part one of our comprehensive guide to conducting oral history interviews this Thanksgiving covers how oral history can complement your family tree and who you should interview this Thanksgiving.
Why oral history?
Oral history can complement genealogical research in two ways. First, it can really help you build a narrative of your family history and understand more about the qualitative experience of your relatives beyond just basic names, dates and places of residence. For instance, you may know that your great aunt grew up in Kentucky during the Great Depression, but only by speaking to her and hearing the memories of her childhood will you understand what that really meant. Of course it's fun to gather facts about the history of your family, but when you understand your family's story as a narrative, you enhance your connection with the past to a whole new level. Oral history supplies the color that brings family history to life.
Secondly, oral history can be a great genealogy "lead generator" -- in the dialogue with your relative, you'll often encounter names of people, places or things that serve as great jumping off points for future research. Does your uncle remember visiting a cousin in New Jersey you never knew about? Was there a first husband in the family that is hardly ever talked about? Chances are you'll come up with more than a few items that you wouldn't have found elsewhere.
Why on Thanksgiving?
There simply isn't a better time than Thanksgiving to conduct oral history interviews. It's obviously quite practical: For many families, this is a the largest gathering of the year and you'll have all the key players in the same place at once. If you plan ahead, you should be able to knock out several interviews in one afternoon that otherwise would have taken you multiple visits.
The mood of the holiday is also very conducive to jogging historical memories.
Family will already be talking and reminiscing about the old days, and your relatives will jump at the opportunity to keep the memories flowing.
Interviewing multiple family members at the same time can really lead to great collaborative story-telling and will produce more meaningful interviews. For instance, getting three brothers together to talk about their childhood can get them talking and the stories flowing -- much more so than if one was interviewed all by himself. Thanksgiving may be the only time of the year you can achieve such collaboration.
Additionally, Thanksgiving is the only time of the year that you'll see certain relatives. For those that are getting up there in age, this may be a final chance to preserve as much of their memory as possible. Memory is fleeting thing, and it's hard to tell what someone may forget as the years go on. And of course, for the elders of the family, you don't want to regret not having interviewed them should they pass away before the next family gathering.
Who to interview?
Without a doubt, your primary targets should be the elders. They have more memories than anyone else, and have interacted with multiple generations of your family. They often have the best perspective on historical change, because they have lived through many decades and periods of history.
Stories from our elders are the most powerful and captivating, because their early lives are starkly different than how things are today.
But don't ignore the more recent generations either. Just because someone is your age doesn't mean they don't have valuable memories, even if it's a story another relative told them years ago. A child's memory of their parents can unlock fascinating details that otherwise would have been forgotten. Furthermore, the perspective of a child is often different in eye-opening ways than the parent. As a family historian, it's valuable to have multiple perspectives on the same events or time period.
Whoever you decide to interview, ask them ahead of time and make sure they're comfortable with doing it. Nobody should be forced through an oral history interview, and unwilling participants do not yield good information anyway. Choose a relative who loves to tell their story and make sure you express how interested you are in talking to them.
When you find the right candidate, let them know in advance that you'd like to interview them. This will build their excitement and anticipation, and will surely get them thinking about their past experiences a few days before they actually talk to you. This extra time of rumination allows for more memories to surface during the actual interview.
Share the results of your interview with the family. Write up a short summary or craft narrative based on what you learn. This is become a treasured family moment by many.
Your first "homework" assignment is to put together a list of people who you would like to interview and put out some feelers. Thanksgiving is only a few days away, so ask them soon! Stay tuned for Part 2 of the series, which discusses exactly how to conduct an oral history interview.