Uncover Your History – Take a look at those closest to you.
Have you ever stopped to think about your grandparent’s history, or your great-aunt’s and uncle’s? What about your father’s or mother’s story? These details of your history often go untold. And we need to look to those closest to us. Those are the people who can tell us everything that we want to know about our family history, our heritage, our culture and our traditions.
An oral history is the collection of living people’s testimony about their own experiences. In just a few minutes, a couple conversations or over an afternoon cup of coffee, you can discover things about your history you would have never known if you didn’t take the time to ask the questions.
Tips for Collecting an Oral History
Pick a topic. Do you want to focus your discussion on one topic, one tradition or one period of time? Think of some questions that you can ask about your topic that might strike up a conversation or get details flowing from the person you are interviewing. Having questions prepared in advance helps to prevent lulls in the conversation. Be sure to ask open-ended questions, or questions that encourage elaboration, not just a simple “yes” or “no.”
Know interview etiquette.
Do not interrupt your subject and don’t be afraid of silence. Give the person time to think and respond to your questions. Be an active participant of the conversation, but don’t dominate your subject. Be sensitive to the needs of your interviewee.
Pick a location.
The interview should take place in a comfortable environment. Perhaps the person that you are talking to would feel most comfortable at home, or maybe meet for lunch or coffee.
Decide what equipment you will need.
Most interviews are recorded via tape recorder and/or note-taking. Recording the interview is often preferred and allows you to revisit the conversation to listen for tone changes, pauses and other tell-tale signs of emotion from the discussion.
Thank the interviewee.
After you are finished with the interview, be sure to thank the person you are interviewing. Consider sending a hand-written “thank you” and a copy of the finished product.
Sample Interviews Questions
- What is your name?
- Where and when were you born?
- Where did you grow up?
- Where have you lived?
- What jobs have you had?
- What do you know about your family name and family history?
- Are there any naming traditions in your family?
- Do you know how your family first came to the United States?
- What did they do for a living after they arrived in the United States?
- If the interviewee is the first generation to come to the United States, you may ask:
- Why did you decide to come to the United States?
- What possessions did you bring with you?
- What were the differences you noticed between your home country and the United States? What was your biggest culture shock?
- What languages do you speak?
- How did your relatives meet and marry? What other stories do you know about your grandparents? Parents? Aunts and Uncles?
- What are some of your childhood memories?
- What were your favorite toys?
- What were your favorite games?
- What were your favorite songs?
- What traditions did you have as a child? What traditions did you keep as you grew up?
- Are there special recipes that have been passed down through the generations of your family?
- How were the holidays celebrated in your family? What were the most important holidays?
- Are there any family heirlooms passed down through the generations? What are they and what is their history?
- How have any historical events effected your family and community? (WWII, Civil Rights Movement, etc.)
- Tell me about your immediate family members (spouse, children, nieces, nephews, etc.) What are they like and what are you most proud of about them?