Seven Tips to Preserving Your Family’s Oral History This Summer
Baylor’s Institute for Oral History shares best practices to get the conversation started
WACO, Texas (May 24, 2023) – As families prepare to travel to grandma’s house over the summer or gather with extended family at reunions, we often are regaled with tales about an older relative’s fascinating life story or their firsthand experience as an eyewitness to history. So how do you capture and preserve those precious memories?
Historians with Baylor University’s renowned Institute for Oral History, home of the Oral History Association as well as its regional affiliate Texas Oral History Association, have recorded and preserved oral history memoirs of individuals since 1970. Stephen Sloan, Ph.D., institute director and professor of history, and Adrienne Cain, assistant director and senior lecturer, share seven simple best practices to help family members begin oral history conversations that enrich recollections of the past.
1. Make sure your family member wants their story to be documented or recorded.
“That's very important,” Cain said. “Many oral historians have run into the spot where, ‘Oh, my grandpa would be great,’ and you get there and it's like, ‘Grandpa does not want to talk to you.’ So first making sure that they want their story recorded.”
2. Determine the type of recording equipment you want to use.
Decide if you want to record your interview with an audio recorder or using a video recording device. The Institute for Oral History offers a helpful resource on choosing the right digital recorder for your needs and comfort level.
3. Do some research about your family member’s life and their timeline to help you formulate your questions.
You can't just put down a recorder in front of someone and say, "Talk." Are there specific things that you want to know? For example, would your family member recall a specific time in their life or a moment in history that affected them? What were they like in high school and what were things they enjoyed doing? Did they serve in the military?
“Doing your research to try to form those questions will help you get around, what I will say is the reluctance to talk sometimes,” Cain said. “The favorite thing that I love to hear is, ‘Oh, I don't have much to say,’ or ‘I'm not that important.’ And then you sit down with them, and you listen to their stories, and your mind is just blown by the things that they've seen and experienced.”
4. Ask open-ended questions without making any assumptions.
“With oral history, it’s really important not to go into the interview with a specific agenda and try to lead anyone to a certain conclusion,” Sloan said. “We can do this very subtly by assuming information, but I can't assume that their experience with that topic is X. That could have been very far from how they encountered whatever event that may have been. I've got to allow them to relate to me the ways in which they lived these experiences.”
5. Start with the basics such as, “Where are you from?”
When Sloan, Cain and their oral history colleagues conduct an interview on a topic, they generally begin with some life history of the subject, providing important context for historians.
“Ask questions early on that are easy for them to answer: a little bit of the backstory, a little bit of where they're from, where they grew up,” Sloan said. “I want to understand the lens through which they experienced events, and the only way I can do that is, who was this? What was formative in their life growing up? Who spoke into who they were? What did they learn? Where did they go? What did they do? Those are the sorts of things that I would be exploring early in the interview.”
One of the questions Cain enjoys asking is, “What did you want to be when you grew up?” There is the standard answer, but she notes that there’s often something that happened that may have changed that trajectory.
“You want to give them something that's very easy and comfortable to talk about,” Cain said. “What was your favorite subject, just to see if that was something that continued on in their life. If there's a certain hobby or something that you know that they're affiliated with, when did you learn about that? Tell me more. What's your interest with this? And then they'll get to talking.”
6. Make sure that you are listening, an important facet of gathering oral history.
When conducting an oral history interview, you are not only listening for what they're saying, you're also listening for what they're not saying, Cain said.
“Are there things that are being skipped around?” Cain said. “For example, in an interview I did with a veteran, sometimes when you're talking to veterans about their combat experience, they need time. There may be some things that they have seen that that may be the first time that they're reliving or retelling these stories. And you just have to be prepared for that.”
7. Be patient. It might take your subject some time to warm up to the conversation.
“If you're talking to someone who is 80, 90 or even 100, that's a lot of memories that they have to go through, so patience is important,” Cain said.
Sloan and Cain were recent guests on the Baylor Connections podcast where they shared more about the work of the Institute for Oral History and how it preserves – and democratizes – history through a collection of stories that would otherwise go untold while also offering tips for individuals seeking to preserve the stories of family or friends.
Baylor’s Institute for Oral History provides another helpful resource called “The Heart of Oral History: How to Interview,” which includes practical instruction in oral history interviewing. In addition, you can learn more about organizing oral history projects, best practices for conducting remote oral history interviews (landline, cellphones and web-based video conferencing) and go deeper into all facets of oral history, including discovering oral history, ethical considerations, protecting and preserving recordings, transcribing interviews and more on the Institute for Oral History website.
ABOUT THE BAYLOR UNIVERSITY INSTITUTE FOR ORAL HISTORY
Through dynamic, recorded interviews, the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University preserves the stories of individuals who helped create the fabric of history and whose lives, in turn, were shaped by the people, places, events and ideas of their day. The Institute has recorded and preserved oral histories since 1970, earning along the way a strong reputation for multidisciplinary outreach to both academic scholars and community historians by providing professional leadership, educational tools and research opportunities. In 2019, the Institute joined the Baylor University Libraries, further strengthening the division for service to researchers and scholars. For more information, visit the Institute for Oral History website.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.