The Chesapeake Genealogy Enthusiasts met on November 9, 2015. Some attendees shared photographs along with memories. Kevin Clement presented the lesson, “Oral History.”

Oral history is a field of study where professionals collect systematically the testimony of living people about their personal experiences. Even though it has been argued that only trained professionals can conduct legitimate oral history, it is important for families to collect and maintain the oral memories of its members.

Families should consider preserving their own memories. My grandfather used to tell marvelous stories of his time as a missionary in Africa. I have shared a couple of these stories throughout my life, but I am positive that I do not give the tales the same flair that my grandfather had given them. How grand would it be if I had an audio or video recording of him telling these stories so I could replay the recording over and over again and hear his voice? It is too late since my grandfather passed away in 1978, but it may not be too late for others. Look to your relatives still living and begin recording their memories. More importantly, do not fail to record your own memories for future generations.

Graduation photo of my grandfather, Frank Manning, missionary and storyteller.

First decide what equipment you will be using to record with: audio or video recorder. I prefer video because I can have visual reminders of the person interviewed as well as capture photographs and ephemera one may use to prompt memories. Audio can be less intrusive, and some people just don’t like to be filmed. Always take the interviewee’s preference into consideration. One attendee mentioned that her great grandmother refused to appear on camera due to personal beliefs.

Photos can be used to trigger memories.

Decide what you want to preserve. One thing I mentioned was family recipes which got some strange looks. I know several people who lament that their mother or grandmother made the best dish of this or that and no matter how they tried they couldn’t recreate it. Either they didn’t have the recipe or if they had the recipe, it never came out the same way Mom made it. Filming a loved one creating a signature dish can be a great way to preserve the recipe the way the “master chef” did it. It also preserves a memory of the kitchen and how the loved one worked in his or her domain. Other areas to preserve may be childhood memories, family history, major events, etc.

Each interview should focus on a central question whether it be the experiences of the interviewee during a significant event such as 9-11, a march on Washington or the assassination of JFK or the recollections of a specific time span such as the teen years or motherhood experiences. Such a focus allows to the interviewee to stay on track or at least allow the interviewer to keep the interview on track.

Remember to prepare for the interview. Never spring an interview on a person. Give the person time to reminisce about the past and collect their thoughts before sharing them during a recording session. Below are some steps that will aid you in your task.

  • Pre-interview (get to know subject)
  • Select a topic from pre-interview (narrow the scope of interview)
  • Do research on topic (immerse yourself in the period or topic)
  • Create questions (include follow up questions to probe deeper)
  • Create summary (provide an idea of the goals)
  • Provide summary and questions to interviewee (set appropriate deadline allowing for consideration)
  • Get interviewee’s feedback (make sure the interviewee is comfortable with your goals)
  • Interview (make sure the space is comfortable)

Remember to respect the interviewee’s reticence to discuss certain topics. If you push for information on a topic that is off limits, the interviewee may clam up on any other question you may want to ask. So start making a list of who you want to interview and start the process as soon as possible. Capture the stories while you can.

If you found this topic useful, you may want to join the Chesapeake Genealogy Enthusiasts every first Tuesday to learn more about various topics. The next meeting will be held on December 1, 2015 at the Central Library in Conference Room D from 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm. The topic will be Researching Military Records. Registration is required and opens up two weeks prior to the event.You can register for the December meeting online by clicking here.


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