Recording Family History


I don’t know about you, but when someone shoves a microphone in my face and says, “Talk!” I freeze. I can’t think, I can’t speak, I can’t even remember my name!

This seems to be the typical reaction of most “older” folks–the ones you particularly want to interview to get genealogical information. Knowing this, you might want to perfect your interviewing skills on more willing subjects, such as family members.  Children are not only uninhibited, they are agreeable to almost anything, they love to talk, and they have the time.

It is fun to occasionally prepare family recordings for grandparents or missionaries in place of letters, being sure to keep a copy for yourself for your history. Special occasions such as Christmas, birthdays, graduations, weddings, and baptisms are all worthy occasions to remember on tape.

One year when our children were young, we made tapes to send to grandparents at Christmas time.  Nothing elaborate, we just sang a few carols and let each child tell something about what they had been learning in school. I am sure the grandparents enjoyed the singing, but probably not as much as the giggles about the “figgy pudding.” When our firstgrader’s turn came to talk, he launched into a lecture about teeth. In all seriousness he said, “There are three parts of the tooth, the enamel, the dentine, and the pulp,” then parenthetically, “Some people even like Dentyne chewing gum.”

While recording sessions are great family activities, the most rewarding sessions are the one-on-one interviews with the kids. You might want to suggest some topics in home evening, and allow time for the children to think about what they might say. You’ll need to do your homework too by assembling the equipment and tapes you’ll use and preparing a few questions to help the child over a lull.

Find a quiet place for just the two of you, and lock the door, if necessary, to avoid interruptions. Your subject will be curious about how the recorder works and how he will sound on tape. Try it out. Say a few silly things, and then play it back to make sure everything is working. You’ll want to record an introduction stating who is conducting the interview, who is being interviewed, the date, place, occasion, and other circumstances. Set the recorder out of direct vision and start talking.

Let the child know that this is his interview, and he may talk about anything he wants to. Help him get started with a few general questions, and then let him talk as long as he wants to and don’t interrupt. You should appear to be interested and give proper feedback such as a nod, etc. so he knows you are listening and understand. Pause after the subject quits talking to allow him to think. He may decide to continue on with priceless remembrances. When you feel it is time to quit, stop the recorder or press pause.  Don’t turn it off. Your subject may remember something else and start talking again.

If you can, make a typewritten copy in case the tape gets damaged or lost. Our Christmas tape was made on an old reel-to-reel recorder we no longer have. Let other family members listen to the recording (with the interviewee’s permission) or read parts of the transcript in home evening.

You can use this same process to record interviews with older relatives. They have some of the same curiosities and concerns that children have, but may not verbalize them. Tell them you will edit out the “uh’s,” “and’s,” and other repetitive phrases as you prepare the transcript and will allow them to read it and listen to the tape before circulating it to others.  If possible, get written permission to include parts of the recording in your family history.

Start simply by asking your subject to relate a story or an incident. Keep the first session short and plan to follow up with more interviews. Second and third sessions may be much more productive than the first as you gain the subject’s trust.

Oral history is important for at least two reasons:

  1. The sound of a person’s voice and the way he speaks quickly help posterity know him.
  2. Most people who are hesitant to write are willing to talk (once you gain their confidence).  They may feel they are too old to write, can’t see, or have trouble remembering, but the distant memory remains very much intact.  As you perfect your interviewing skills, the quality and quantity of information you get will increase. You will bless the lives of others as well as your own.

Some of the more than 4,000 LDS Family History Centers are providing recording rooms and equipment needed to make oral history recordings.  Check with your local Family History Center to see if they offer this service.

Follow this link for more ideas on how to conduct oral history interviews.