Category: Oral History

Oral History Project For Family History Research

https://www.coloringdiary.com/While a diary is a useful tool for recording everyday events and coming appointments, it doesn’t always form a record of an important period in someone’s life or of important events. Sometimes, a different form of notes is required and this is where an oral history journal can be helpful.

Oral (spoken) history was the first kind of history – stories, memories and knowledge passed on from one person to another by word of mouth. It’s how myths have been passed down through the centuries, as well as knowledge about herbs, sources of water in the dry seasons and apprentices have learned from their elders. Even today, there are story tellers who entertain groups with old stories and one of the first ways that children learn is through stories and information from their parents or carers.

Many families have their stories, passed down through the generations but these have not always been kept or recorded for others to find out what happened or how people lived at a different time or how certain events had an impact on whole generations or locales.

Oral histories can change in the telling, over the years until the original story may not be recognisable. By writing down these stories, they can be preserved for future generations to understand what it was like to live through certain events or at certain times and what it was like for a person alive at that time. For instance, my mother in law used to talk about going to school in the 1920s and how each pupil had to take a piece of coal with them to warm the schoolroom in winter, how she would take off her shoes and hide them on the way to school, going in barefoot, retrieving them on the way home and how the children would dig up a carrot from a field to have something to eat. These stories are not written down anywhere yet (though they will be). Children may not always be receptive to tales told by their grandparents, yet in later years would love to hear about those everyday tales, possibly when it is too late.


Oral history and the written down versions are primary sources for studying history, yet listening to stories told by older generations is a fascinating way of finding out how people lived a generation or so ago and does not feel like learning a lesson.

Stories from eyewitnesses are used today in court proceedings and have been used for thousands of years as the basis for recording events from wars, volcanic explosions and political upheavals, for instance. These days, oral history is often produced from interviews with individuals, recorded on video or audio media and then often transcribed to produce books. This can be done professionally by trained interviewers using the latest equipment and transcribers working from the tapes produced. It does not have to be so involved if you want to produce a family or group history that will form an interesting record for later generations. For instance, my mother tells of a time as a child when an earthquake shook her house, bouncing her about on the sofa and china rattling and books falling. This may be everyday stuff for some people, but she lived in an area where earthquakes had only been read about.

Until recently, children in local schools were asked to talk to elderly relatives about their memories of World War II. There are fewer and fewer people with these personal memories now but earlier recordings are still available for later generations to listen to or read. Ann Frank’s diary is her story of living hidden in an attic during the later years of World War II. It is not the spoken word but was written directly by her during her time in hiding. Books written about people’s ordinary lives at the time that events happened include information that may have been common at that time but which can be forgotten as time passes and circumstances change. For instance, a story written about life during world War II included such everyday items as what the family had for tea. One day, it was a slice of apple pie. That was it.

A diary of everyday events is not the same as an oral history, though it is also a primary source of information. An oral history taken from someone will include a lot of their background information, such as their date of birth, parents, full name and may include only information on certain events, like a war or natural disaster, whereas a diary often keeps information on everyday life in a chronological order, whether big events, small events or no significant events happen.

Taking an oral history is a way of carrying out historical research and there are professional interviewers who do this, however, it is also fun to carry out your own oral history project with older family members and who knows, you may also find out something interesting about your family as well as learning how life was different years ago?

It doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. You may only need to ask the person to tell you about “when they were young” to start them talking. Recording the conversation is the best method of remembering everything that was said, however, transcribing even ten minutes of conversation can be a time consuming and difficult task, so it can be better to write notes down as you are listening. They may even be willing to write part of the information down for you and then you also have a record of their handwriting.

For younger people, writing the interview straight into a project book can be the best way to record and keep information they get. Older people may wish to take notes on paper and gather them together to create a composite note of memories that they can then write into the project book as a cohesive whole.

Oral History Interview Questions For Family Research

Oral History Project

You may be doing this as a school project or as part of a family search or an interest in your ancestry or genealogy or just for history research. Talking about past times can also be useful when talking to someone with dementia. While present times may be fuzzy to them and they often cannot remember the answer to a question they asked two minutes previously, they often have clear memories of what happened in the past and often greatly enjoy talking about people and events that happened in their childhood or early adulthood, especially with family members who also remember those times and people but also with others who may not have been there.

Oral History Interviews

If you want to ask someone about their experiences of something that happened in their past, start out by letting them describe this in their own way. Use questions like “Tell me about ….” or “Can you describe …”. Let them start out telling you about the topic as a story that they lived and the experiences that they had and then just listen. These kinds of questions are called “open questions” because they encourage someone to talk, rather than just say “yes” or “no” or give short answers or even give you the answers they think you want to hear.

You can take notes in your journal to record the oral history. https://www.coloringdiary.com/For older children or adults, it may be better to record the notes on a separate piece of paper and then write it up later in the journal. For non-professional interviewers, audio recording an interview, then writing it out, takes a long time and can be very tiring. It is more likely to get completed if notes are written at the time. If you have the chance, talk to the person several times about their experiences. Quite often, they will add more points that they missed out previously.


You can also add copies of photographs of people or photos of objects that they may have mentioned. It is best to use copies of pictures if sticking them in a journal like this, especially if the journal is to be kept for a long time, as the paper and glues used may not be of archival quality. If you want to keep old photographs or pictures of objects, make sure you keep those separately in archival quality boxes or using special covers, so they remain good.

Open Question Starters

Tell me about ….
Can you describe ….
What was it like when ……..
What do you remember best about …..
Can you tell me any stories about …..

Topics

……. when you were a child
……. how you got your name / nickname
……. your earliest childhood memory
……. your parents
……. your brothers and sisters
……. your grandparents
……. other members of your family, like cousins and aunts and uncles
……. family discipline
……. where you lived
……. when you moved house
……. the type of house you lived in
……. the type of area you lived in
……. your best birthday present
……. your first pet
……. the games you played
……. your hobbies
……. going to school
……. your age when you left school and went to work
……. your first job
……. something scary or important happened, like the war or a big storm, or an earthquake
……. anything historical that happened when you were young
……. learning to drive
……. your first car

Remember to note the person’s name and date of birth and when you recorded the interview.