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
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
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
- 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
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.