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Organizing Oral History Information

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You Have the Stories...Now What?
Getting an oral history from one of your relatives is often the easy part. Here are some ways to extract what's genealogically relevant from your tapes and notes, and preserve the stories and lore for future generations.

What to Do with All Those Great Stories

Visiting with Great-aunt Wilhelmina was always a hoot. When we were little kids, we'd play hide-the-thimble and she'd sometimes put it on top of her head, concealing it amongst the snow white curls.

Years later, there was less play and more talk, but it was still great fun. Born in 1902 and living most of her life on a ranch in Starr Valley, Nevada, she would tell us about the prize-winning apple orchard, the animals, the family, and the neighbors. On one occasion, we drove her out to see the house on the ranch, which was no longer owned by the family. Standing on the dirt road and looking up at the two-story house, I asked which room had been hers. She pointed to one of the upper story windows, saying "That one on the corner."And then she pointed to the fresh concrete slab and new basketball hoop in the yard and said with a twinkle in her eye "and that's where we played basketball." Oh, Billie, I do miss you.

From Family Story to Family Tree

Clearly Aunt Billie was joking about the basketball games, but the episode illustrates an important point. When you get an oral history from a family member, what do you do with the information after the visit is over? And how do you keep the family legends separate from the facts?

First, let's back up a few steps. When you decided to visit one of your relatives for the purpose of getting an oral history, let's say your great aunt, hopefully you made an appointment with her in advance, came prepared with a number of interesting questions, perhaps some old photos to jog memories, and even a plate of cookies. You also, of course, brought your best smile and attitude, and remembered that this was a social visit, not a grill session at the police station.

Just Like Santa: Make Your List, Check It Twice

Now, given that the visit went smoothly, you heard quite a few interesting stories, and found answers to several, but perhaps not quite all of your questions, you have a whole new pile of data to put into your family history, right? Well, maybe not. Before you rush headlong into adding the information to your master database there are a few things that you should address.

Transcribe Your Notes Clearly and Neatly
This is something that you want to do not long after the interview, while the conversation is fresh in your memory. If you took notes by hand or on a laptop computer, read them over carefully, checking to ensure that they make sense to you and that you can clearly read all names and dates. Wherever anything is unclear, be sure to verify it with the person you interviewed.

If you recorded or video taped the interview, play the tape to verify that the conversation is clear at all points in time. Make a transcription of the tape, as notes written on paper are more likely to survive the test of time than a tape, particularly if the transcription is stored properly. Anyone will be able to pick up the notes and read them years from now, but who knows if an appropriate tape player will be available to play back the recorded version?

Compare Your Notes to the Information You Already Have
Information that you learned during the interview will fall into three categories:

  • Completely new data.
  • Data that matches information you already have.
  • Data that contradicts information you already have.

Hopefully your interview produced lots of information that falls into the first two categories, and not much that fell into the third category.

Update Sources for Information That Was Confirmed
The general rule in genealogy is "the more sources the better." So, if your interview confirmed a birth date or occupation or any other information that you already had, it certainly doesn't hurt to add a note in your sources such as "Joanna Hudson Smith, granddaughter of Robert John Hudson, noted in an interview on July 10th, 2000, that Robert John Hudson's birthday was April 5, 1850."

You may not want to do this for every single fact that you picked up during the interview, particularly if you are planning to interview several family members. However, for those pieces of information where you haven't been able to find primary sources, such as birth certificates for birth dates, it isn't a bad idea.

Check for Confirmation of New Data
If you learned new names, dates, and locations during your interview, that's great. Look at them carefully and decide what you need to do to verify them. An easy possibility is to check with other family members, but if they learned their family history from the same source as the person that you interviewed, then they are likely to give you the same information. A better solution is to check for outside sources: birth certificates for birth dates and birthplaces, marriage certificates for marriage information, and so forth.

Weigh the Facts on Conflicting Data
Sometimes during an interview you will find that one relative's idea of when or how a particular event took place is different from another relative's idea. As in the previous point, you need to weigh the information, and then decide what you can do to help clear up the facts. Sometimes it won't be possible to determine which interpretation is correct, but in other cases you will be able to check outside sources.

Decide Who You Want to Talk to Next
With your interview complete, you've hopefully learned quite a bit, but probably still have many questions. You will want to spend some time researching those questions with records and other traditional written resources, but there are most likely other family members or friends who would also be willing to share a story with you. Start considering who you would like to speak with next.

But What About the Stories?

Names and dates are great, and they have been the main focus of our discussion thus far, but what about Aunt Billie's tales of the apple orchards and day-to-day life on the ranch? These are some of the best ways to make our family histories come alive and perhaps interest other family members in genealogy.

Be sure that transcriptions or taped versions are circulated among your family members. If there is a family newsletter or Web site, it is the perfect location to include an account of how past family members celebrated the 4th of July. Stories such as these don't have to be long, so are relatively easy to put out. You can also gather the stories into a family book, or, at the next family reunion, even have the kids create a play based on some of the family stories — just don't let them take too much poetic license.

Oral histories are always worthwhile, because they let you escape from your computer and dusty books for a short time and interact with someone who played a role in your family history. Once you have had the pleasure of doing this, be sure to spend some time taking advantage of all that you have learned.

About the Author
This article was written by staff.

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Step-by-Step Guide: Evaluating Oral and Written Evidence
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