Many families have turned to video conferencing apps like Zoom and Skype to stay connected during the coronavirus pandemic. Those online conversations can also serve a larger purpose — to capture family oral histories.
Oral histories are, at their simplest, recordings of memories. They have been around since the earliest days of reel-to-reel tape recorders. Documentarians or researchers would head out into the field to record the memories of people who survived grand events in human history. In the process, they also recorded local music and tall tales.
While the technology used to capture oral histories has changed over the years, the need to record family memories has never been greater. As older generations pass away, the stories of how things happened and how we came to be who we are passes away, too.
Stan Bumgardner, the editor of Goldenseal Magazine, said oral histories capture the emotions attached to a memory.
“If it was an important event in your life, you certainly remember how it made you feel,” he said. “ You remember how it affected the people around you. And that's from good to awful, to funny, to tragic.”
During this socially distant time, many families are using online software to stay in touch. Most have the option to record the conversation built directly into the application.
To get started, make sure you tell everyone on the call that you are recording it and then just talk, said Francene Kirk, interim director of the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center in Fairmont.
Kirk said to begin, ask a few leading questions and listen to the answers. You can’t want “yes” or “no” answers. Here are few examples.
- Tell me about your family/tell me about your people.
- What was it like where you grew up?
- What do you remember about your parents? Going to school?
She said if you want to know more about a story, or need clarification on what they’re telling you, try repeating the last couple of words.
“So when my grandmother said, ‘I sat there and all those wet underwear,’ I said, ‘wet underwear?’ and you just make it sound like a question,” Kirk said. “And then she launched on what she wore to school.”
But aside from having those memories and voices recorded, Kirk thinks there's another benefit of collecting oral histories.
“I think it's about figuring out who you are, and why you are who you are,” she said.
For Bumgardner, oral histories are great for capturing sensory experiences.
“People can remember their grandmother baking an apple pie. And they don't have the recipe for it. And they have no clue how to make it themselves, but they know exactly 50 years later, what it smelled like when it was baking, and how it tasted and how it made them feel when they ate it,” he said.
When recording an oral history, the best thing you can do as a listener is to be quiet, Bumgardner says.
“Especially with elderly people, sometimes they'll have to fumble around for a memory for a few minutes, and you just want to jump in and help them and all you're doing is kind of shutting them up,” he said.
Even experts like Bumgardner make the mistake of talking during an interview. He said when he listens to oral histories he recorded early in his career he wants to yell at himself to be quiet. But having an imperfect one is still better than not having any recording at all.
Once those stories are recorded, you’ll have them forever. The sound of your loved one’s voice is just a click away.
If you are looking for more help recording oral histories, these are helpful resources.
- The StoryCorps App — includes questions to ask
- Oral History Association
- The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide