A good oral history will bring life to history. When you can hear the joy or sorrow in their voice you will understand how an event had an impact on their life. Listen for the sound of a parents love, the sadness over loss, and the excitement of an adventure. Pick up on clues about how they lived, their homes, education, family, and items of everyday life. From an oral history I recently discovered I learned the my client’s Aunt’s explanation for why the family moved many times when they were children, her confusion and belief that her grandparents were broke by the time they died, and the reason her maternal grandmother moved the large family to Texas.
A timeline can be established from an oral history, although it may not be offered chronologically. The interviewer may not guide the oral history in a chronological manner, it could be topical or not guided at all. It is hopeful that the moderator will redirect the interview when the it goes off track, without missing those important side stories, and not letting the interviewee ramble. Take good notes, or refer to a transcript of the oral history if one is available, and reorganize the information from the interview into an arrangement that will work for your research.
A good pedigree, fan chart, descendent or ancestor family tree can tell you the vital statistics of the members of your family, but it can only start to tell the story. We all hope to find an oral history for the personal connections to families. You may learn about the dynamics of the family and close relationships outside the family that can give you a sense of who they were. Were they friends with someone that may have more information in an archive or another oral history?
There are down sides to oral histories, unfortunately there are a host of things that can make an oral history unproductive or ineffective. A poor environment for an interview such as background noise can make the interview difficult to understand. If the setting is unfamiliar or there are interruptions the interviewee may be distracted and difficult to keep on track. Some interviewees can be uncooperative because they don’t like to talk (especially about the past), or they are not far enough removed from the subject to provide a good perspective. Occasionally an interview can go badly if a sensitive subject is broached.
Your subject is human
The best interviewee is someone in the twilight of their life, they tend to have a better ability to look back than someone in the prime of life. With age come problems with memory and recall, the brain is an amazing organ, but for some it can fail when recalling the past. Also, be aware that as stories are told and retold throughout someone’s life they may experience some exaggeration. Perspective, point of view, and life experiences will change someone’s opinion of subjects, events, and people.
Ultimately the best oral histories are guided by a good interviewer or moderator. The job of the moderator is to be prepared for the interview and guide the interviewee through the subject and manage the recording. They should take the time to transcribe the interview, and ultimately deposit it in a library or archive where it can be used. A poorly prepared interviewer can sabotage the process.
Seek out oral histories
Oral histories are fantastic resources, please go seek them out and use them when and where possible. In looking for oral histories look at the collateral connections in your family tree. Don’t rule out local oral histories that may give you insight into the community or industry of your subject. Look for oral histories in your local libraries, University libraries, local archives, and possibly your state archives.