Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Create Your Family's Oral History

It was a dark and stormy night. The thunder boomed and lightning flashed across the sky. The rain pelted down in torrential sheets. Then, in the distance, a dark figure stumbled into view. It got closer and closer, and I felt a chill run down my spine. This creature promised nothing but trouble and misery. I turned to run away, but I slipped on the wet pavement and the thing pounced on me, and with a primal roar it sank its teeth into my neck and branded me as its own forever. And that's how I met your mother....

At least that is the story my father told me. How about you? Do you know your family's history? Do you have stories of long ago and far away? This week our LIFE class was joined by Professor Sandra Harvey, a professional oral historian who received her degree from Baylor University, and she gave us tips on how to collect your family's oral history.

1) Define the project. Know what you want to talk about so you can keep the interview on track. Some folks have a tendency to wander from topic to topic if you let them.
2) Do your research. Find as many documents as you can (family Bibles, letters, birth certificates, death certificates, newspaper announcements, etc.) to spur the interview.
3) Find interviewees. For family histories this should be easy. If you are doing an oral history for a community, put up fliers in churches, nursing homes, grocery stores - any public place that a person from the time period you want may see it. Hit the pavement - go door to door asking folks if they know of people who you could interview. Kids' memories of their parents' memories don't count - you can't corroborate what they say. You need first hand material.
4) Make an outline of the interview. Don't make a list of questions - that tends to discourage talk. Having a rough outline allows the interviewee to decide the course of the interview.
5) Don't let the interview become a monologue. You are giving the interview, so it is up to you to keep the interviewee on topic and keep track of the time.
6) Set a time and date for the interview that works for both of you. Allow two hours; one hour for the interview, and another hour to say hello, chit-chat and set up.
7) Make sure all your equipment works before you do the interview! Have a back-up recorder, extra batteries, a note pad and lots of pens.
8) Start off the interview by stating your name, the date, the time, the place and the name of the interviewee. If you are recording on a cassette tape, say "side 1". If the tape runs out, flip the tape over and say "side 2, a continuation of my interview with Bob Jones."
9) Some good prompts to get interviewees to talk are "tell me your name, where you were born, when were you born, tell me about your background..." Such basic information will get them comfortable speaking to you and the recorder.
10) Transcribe your interviews.
11) Convert your tapes to digital as soon as you can. Cassette tapes degrade after 10 years. Film degrades a little more slowly, but they don't last forever.
12) Get signed contracts with the interviewee allowing you to record and then publish the interview. If you want to donate the interview to a university or museum, make sure to get their consent to do that.
13) Get used to distractions during the interview. The sound of your own voice, animals, children, phones, doorbells - something will always interrupt you.

To hear examples of Professor Harvey's interviews and more, check out the Living Stories page on Baylor University's website, under the radio segments. And start working on your family's oral history today!

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