Looking for a great gift for Mom or Grandma for Mother's Day, a birthday,
Christmas, or some other occasion? Why not take an hour or so to interview
the women in your family and preserve their life stories? Women typically
lead private lives. Unlike men who usually create tons of records, even
today some women don't create many public documents, so capturing their
life story is all the more crucial.
Interviewing for Life Story Content
When I was just a baby genealogist, I dutifully interviewed my grandmother,
asking her questions like when and where she was born, the names of her
parents, when and where they were born, the names and birth dates of her
siblings, the names of her grandparents and when and where they were born
and died. Then, as all the genealogy how-to books advised, I verified
everything she told me in one record or another.
I hated doing oral history interviews. My grandmother hated being interviewed.
It didn't take me long to realize that interviewing the women in my family
for genealogical information wasn't a pleasant experience for anyone.
So I stopped interviewing them. What was the point? Why bother asking
questions if I could find the information in a record somewhere anyway?
Then I met a social historian who taught me a better way of doing oral
history interviewing-the oral historian's way. Instead of asking who,
where, and when, I should be asking these women why, how,
- What was your wedding day like?
- How did your mother prepare you for the wedding night?
- What were some of your mother's positive qualities?
- What about negative qualities?
- How did your mother meet your father?
- What is your fondest memory of your mother or your grandmother?
- As you think of your mother or grandmother, how do you remember her
- How old was she then?
- What did you call her?
- What did others call her?
- Tell me a story about your mother or grandmother that would characterize
her or show me what kind of a woman she was.
None of these questions can be answered with just a simple "yes" or "no."
These questions require the person to think about the answers and will
give you information you won't find in any records. Information that is
so much more interesting than dry names and dates.
Your Interview Goals
The first question you need to ask yourself is "What is
the purpose of conducting an oral history interview with the women in
my family?" Is your goal to "get the facts, ma'am, nothin' but the facts"?
Or is it to learn about what life was like for her? We do have to start
with the basic facts the who, when, and where for
our genealogical searches; but keep in mind that you'll probably find
all of that information in a record somewhere once you begin research.
What you won't find in the records are your moms's thoughts, feelings,
and motivations the why, how, and what. These are
the things that make a person unique and will go to the grave when she
Preparing for the Interview
Always prepare before an interview with questions you'd like to ask,
remembering to seek why did this happen, how did you feel
about it, and what was it like? My favorite book for oral history
prep is William Fletcher's Recording Your Family History. He subdivides
questions into these categories:
- Family history
- Middle age
- Old age
- Narrator as parent
- Historical events
- General questions, unusual life experiences, and personal philosophy
- Questions for interviewing Jewish, black, and Hispanic relatives
I use the questions Fletcher provides as a starting point, then tailor
the questions to the woman I'm interviewing based on my prior knowledge
about her life. I write these questions out in advance, but I'm prepared
to deviate if she gives me details about a topic I hadn't considered.
Interviewing Etiquette and Putting Your Victim at Ease
Before I actually begin the interview, I explain to the subject that
not all the material will be used in the family history I write and that
they will have an opportunity to see and approve what I write before it
is published or distributed to other family members. Keep in mind that
you do not own that person's memories; therefore, you may not use the
information a relative tells you at your own discretion. Get written permission
to use the material if you plan to publish or distribute parts of the
I also try to put my interview victims at ease by telling them that they
do not have to answer all the questions I ask. If it's too personal, just
tell me. And if they later regret telling me something, they can let me
know and I won't include it.
My aunt was one of those reluctant interviewees. She dreaded coming for
a visit because she knew I wanted to interview her. By the second day,
however, she was loving the attention. Usually, once the reluctant narrator
sees that I'm not asking for facts especially about people long
dead and buried but instead stories about her life and her memories
of her parents and grandparents, the victim relaxes and thoroughly enjoys
An interview should not last longer than one to two hours at a stretch.
It's tiring for you and the person being interviewed. If you are only
with the relative for a day or so, take frequent breaks during the interview,
since an intensive interview like this can last from six to eight hours
at a stretch.
As you are conducting the interview, listen. Ask a question, then wait
and listen to the response. While the urge to interrupt to clarify
a point or ask another question is great, don't. Make a note of
the item and come back to it. Do not interrupt or correct the narrator.
Even though you may have documented proof that contradicts a story you
are being told, let your relative tell you the way she remembers the event.
You can make a note of the discrepancy. Show interest in what she is saying
by nodding, using appropriate facial expressions, or occasionally saying
To me, some of the best questions are the personal ones ones that
may be slightly embarrassing or may make the narrator laugh or cry. These
are the questions no one has had the nerve to ask, and the answers to
which you won't find recorded anywhere, except maybe in a diary. Obviously,
you don't want to start the interview with a question like "So tell me
what you and your husband used for birth control in the 1940s." Or, "Tell
me about the automobile accident your son died in last year."
Using Oral History
So what do you do with the interview after you've picked your mom's or
grandma's brain? You will either need to transcribe the tapes or, if you
did not take notes during the interview, you should make notes from the
tapes. Keep in mind that if you leave the interview as an audio or video
tape, it will not be as useful to you or your descendants. Technology
changes too fast, and the shelf life of an audio or video tape is only
about ten years before it will begin to deteriorate. The printed word
is still the most widely used form of preserving history.
Be aware that transcribing tapes is incredibly time consuming and tedious.
Personally, I have never transcribed an oral history tape; I prefer to
make notes from the tape and pull particularly interesting quotes to use
when writing the family history.
Once you have the interview transcribed, there are many ways you can
incorporate the details into your family history. Some people like to
include transcriptions of interviews in their family books while others
prefer to include a more narrative account. You could also incorporate
details of the interview when writing captions to photographs in your
Oral History Interviewing Is Fun for Everyone Involved
Despite my rocky start as an oral history interviewer, I have come to
really enjoy it. And so have the women I've interviewed. It's wonderful
to have someone interested in you and your life, and it's cathartic for
them to relax, reminisce, and reflect on their past. With oral history
interviewing, you can ensure that women in your family will have their
lives recorded and remembered forever.
Epstein, Ellen and Jane Lewit. Record and Remember: Tracing
Your Roots through Oral History. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House, 1994
Fletcher, William. Recording Your Family History: A Guide
to Preserving Oral History Using Audio and Video Tape. Berkeley: Ten
Speed Press, 1989.
Sturdevant, Katherine Scott. Bringing Your Family History
to Life through Social History. Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 2000.