Oral History as a Tool for Collecting Family History

Program for the Iowa City Genealogical Society
January 28, 2006
by Leigh Ann (Jero) Randak
Johnson County Historical Society--351-5738
name updated 05 Sep 2010

 Interview Family Members About….

·        Family History/Family Stories

·         Help jump start/direct research

·         Take advantage while resource/opportunity is available

·         Add background to facts

·         Personal Stories about family members not written up in histories

·         Record family and individual sayings

·         Their own stories and don’t forget your own stories

·         For future generations of your family

·         Part of the history of their/your community

·         Can get information not found in any other place

·         Can be therapeutic for you and them

Doing the Interviews

·         Taped interview—Audio or Video

·         Interview them/have someone interview you

·         Create tape on own

·         Help get your family members involved in oral history projects/memory
projects done by schools, historical societies etc. and get a copy

·         Jot down notes over time on what to ask or talk about

·         Use photographs and objects to jog memory.

·         Interview different family members about the same thing.

·         Read published oral histories for ideas

·         Don’t be afraid to do several interviews.

·         Consider with permission donating interviews you do to local historical societies

·         Bring tape recorder or notebook to family reunions or get togethers.

What if they aren’t around anymore?

·         Tape or write down what you remember about them or your interactions with them

Interviewing Children

·         Do an interview with a child

·         Record sayings and jokes


Interviewing Dos and Don’ts

When asking questions….

  • Do ask open-ended questions like, “what was it like?” or “can you describe…?”
  • Don’t ask questions so complex that they befuddle the narrator.
  • Don’t lead the narrator into the responses you want to hear – only lead him or her into topics and subjects.
  • Do explore unexpected tangents when they come up.
  • Don’t keep repeating a question if the narrator doesn’t, can’t, or won’t answer it.
  • Do remain in control of the situation at all times, and try to bring long, rambling digressions back on track, but no too abruptly.
  • Do be prepared to handle touchy subjects.
  • Do get a sense of time and place from each answer by suggesting a chronology that connects things to remembered events, rather than always trying to fix on specific year dates.
  • Do ask for repeats on difficult or unusual names, places, or colloquial expressions.
  • Do define terminology so that a broad audience will be able to understand and don’t assume that because you know what something is, someone using the tape later will also.
  • Do remember that how people felt about what they were doing, the reasons they did them, are as important as what they actually did, regardless of how things really are.
  • Don’t give the impression you know more about the subject than the narrator does.
  • Do make sure there are no other people present during the interview.

When listening to responses….

  • Do spend most of your time listening, not talking.
  • Do keep a grain of salt handy – don’t swallow everything you are told as the gospel truth but…
  • Don’t contradict the narrator or correct a narrator’s facts
  • Do act interested at all times but limit your comments
  • Do be patient and don’t always expect a fluent and complete answer immediately—pauses often signify reflection and can produce the best information.
  • Do keep notes on non-verbal cues that the tape can’t pick up like facial expressions, sly grins, or hand gestures.
  • Don’t patronize or rush the narrator.
  • Do plan to end the interview after an hour to an hour and a half, and watch for signs that the narrator is tiring.
  • Don’t be rigid about one interview if there is more you want to discuss and the narrator is willing to do another interview.
  • Do emphasize over and over the historical importance of the narrator’s information.

When looking back on your interview….

·         Don’t expect a great interview every time.

·         Do realize that each situation and each interview is unique.

·         Do realize that all the instruction in the world is no substitute for practical experience.