I recently had the privilege of attending the Foundation for East European Family History Studies (FEEFHS) Conference in Salt Lake City. While there were many helpful courses, the one that stood out to me most was an oral history class presented by Ina Navazelskis, a journalist of 30 years and a current interviewer for the United States Holocaust Museum’s Oral History Branch.
Ms. Navazelskis taught us that oral histories are a spoken resource. While this may seem obvious, I was struck with the realization that when we create an oral history, either for ourselves or by interviewing family members, we are creating a resource, a spoken record, which can be referred back to, cited, and used by future genealogists. Imagine if we had oral histories from our ancestors of 200 years ago—how invaluable and treasured something like that would be!
As a resource, oral histories are not necessarily meant to be a record of factual information. Although they can include facts and sometimes help correct inaccurate or incomplete records, chronology (specific times and dates) is generally the first thing to go in our memory. What is more important with oral histories, however, is that the thoughts, memories, experiences, and perspectives of the person are captured. These are aspects of a person’s life that don’t get recorded in other records and this is what makes oral histories so invaluable.
With well over a decade of experience interviewing Holocaust survivors and witnesses for the museum, Ms. Navazelskis stressed that proper preparation as an interviewer is the key to obtaining a successful and meaningful oral history. As part of this preparation, she recommended a few key steps. The first was to write out your goals ahead of time, reading background information about the time period or people involved, and creating timelines or geographically mapping out the person’s life to become closely familiar with it. Second, she said, it is important as the interviewer to maintain control of the interview but not to be afraid of silence. Finally, ask both open- and closed-ended questions without judgment or censure, and listen with courtesy and respect.
She also included more specific tips. To begin, it is often best to verify the person’s name and how they spell it, when and where they were born, who their parents and siblings were, and what their parents did for a living. This not only records these facts and makes them part of the record, but also helps set the tone and prepare the mind for remembering. From there, you can continue into the first topic that you planned to discuss. When you have learned enough on that topic, you move to the next and so on. It is good to start with more generalized questions and then gradually work towards becoming more personal, especially if the subject matter is something that may be difficult for the person being interviewed to talk about.
Although the Holocaust Museum generally uses a camera crew and state-of-the-art professional audio and video technology to record their interviews, most people do not realistically have access to that sort of equipment – and that’s fine! The most important thing for a family oral history interview of your own is to make sure the sound is clear. A clear picture with garbled audio is essentially meaningless – but a clear audio with fuzzy or no picture is still a valuable oral history.
There are many options and resources for conducting oral histories available to the general public that don’t involve dropping thousands of dollars on professional recording equipment. One of my favorites is the new StoryCorps app. This app allows anyone with an Android or Apple device to easily choose interview questions, properly prepare, and then record interviews. The interviews can be edited and uploaded to the StoryCorps website to share with the world or even archived with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress!
At Legacy Tree Genealogists, we would love to help you prepare for your family oral history interviews. We can gather documents and create timelines of a person’s life, mapping out geographically where they lived and when. We can point out major events in their personal life as well as significant local or historical events they may have lived through. We can even use the information we find to help prepare questions that will open the door to the stories of your family members. Contact us today for a free consultation.