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Oral Histories Can Be The Key To Unlocking The Past (Part 1 of 2)

Nothing can capture the essence of a family the way grandparents and other relatives can.


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Memories are the most precious of all family treasures. Nothing can capture the essence of a family the way grandparents and other relatives can. They've lived through some great events and can recall them first-hand. They may remember the smallest details of significant family moments that aren't recorded anywhere else. And these stories can bring ancestors to life.

When these spoken recollections are gathered, organized, and preserved, the information is called an "oral history." Oral histories don't grow out of rambling reminiscences— they're collected through carefully directed interviews. These interviews can also be videotaped for a "live" recorded history. But a written transcript of a video interview is also necessary to aid in research.

Because those who provide the information are generally older members of the family, both their lives and their memories are at risk of being lost to time. Therefore, it should always be the first priority of a beginning genealogist or family historian to find these patriarchs and matriarchs of the family, be they grandparents, great-grandparents, granduncles, grandaunts, great-granduncles, great-grandaunts, older first and second cousins, and even older neighbors and acquaintances of these people.

Who should be interviewed first? While there's no particular order to compiling an oral history, it's logical to begin with the oldest members of the family. After that, everyone is game. After all, probably every family member knows something no one else knows. And one of those memories may help solve a piece of the family puzzle.

Older members know the most about the earliest days of the family. They are, in fact, a precious link to the past. Someone born in 1920 can not only give you clear memories of the 1930s, but he or she may have heard first-hand tales of the 1880s from someone who was 70 years old in 1930. In one conversation, it may be possible to connect 100 years of family history.

But many genealogists don't feel comfortable talking with older relatives, especially ones they may not know very well. For many, beginning with parents and working their way back is more comfortable and, likewise, productive.

Also, it won't always be possible to sit down with an older family member. Some of them may live far away, necessitating telephone or questionnaire interviews. However it's done, conducting a successful oral history interview isn't always easy. Some of it depends on those being interviewed–what they know, what they are willing to talk about, and how much they remember.

Information gathered through oral histories should be treated as guidance, not as the ultimate source, because memories often fade and facts get confused with other facts. Sometimes, the information obtained through oral interviews exists nowhere else and must be taken at face value. Of particular value are the stories, anecdotes, and family traditions, songs, and especially information associated with pictures, documents, and other records.

Also, it's important to establish rapport with family members prior to interviewing them. Older relatives, especially those with whom there's no friendly relationship may distrust the genealogist who interviews them cold. Breaking the ice is sometimes more important than the quantity of information gathered on the first visit. A second visit may be in order to be productive.

Many beginning researchers think oral histories should only be taken of family members. But family acquaintances can be just as important. These people may give an objective look at subjective information obtained from a family member. It's only human to remember only certain facts in a situation. Sometimes, valuable information or documents, such as diaries, may have been handed down to friends or relatives by marriage at the time. The descendants of these people may not have any interest in them.

Transcribed oral history collections may assist researchers who are beginning their genealogies or family histories. There are many such collections in archives and libraries around the United States. These range from interviews with miners, cowboys, Indians, and early settlers, to industrial leaders, politicians, doctors, midwives, ecclesiastical leaders, and so forth. Sometimes by speaking with a relative, a genealogist will find that they or another family member has already participated in a oral history project. The State of Texas annually conducts oral interviews and photographic sessions in towns throughout the state. That means that some of the work has already been done.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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