As our parents and grandparents age, it becomes more and more important to learn and document their life stories. After all, one day the opportunity will no longer be there. Taking the time to sit down, talk, and record their stories is a rich and rewarding way to learn about their past, their life experiences, and their perspectives, ensuring those memories don't fade away after they've gone.
Oral history is also a great way to preserve family stories and anecdotes for future generations, giving your children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and even later generations the opportunity to understand where they've come from, and what life was like for their ancestors.
In this article we'll walk you through how to record and transcribe your family history. It takes a little time and preparation, but it's so worth it when you have those precious audio clips, videos, and written transcripts to look back on in years to come.
The first step is to choose how you want to record the interview. Do you want to simply record the audio, so that you can listen back to the recordings, or do you want a visual recording too?
Video recordings are often more engaging, as you can see the subject's expressions and get a better idea of their emotions. However, not everyone is comfortable in front of the camera. The method you choose may also depend on the subject matter. For example, if you're asking about happy memories, it could be nice to capture that on video. However, if you're asking about traumatic memories, or thoughts about growing older and what happens next, then it might feel more sensitive to record audio alone.
Once you've decided whether you want to record a video or just the audio, you can think about how to record the conversation. For interviews conducted in person, you can choose to use your smartphone, a dictaphone, or a video camera. Keep your phone or video camera steady by using a tripod, as that will lead to a better quality recording.
If your relative lives far away, you might choose to talk to them on the phone or via video call instead. If you're talking to them on the phone, consider using a phone call recording app like RingCentral, Cube Call Recorder or Google Voice to ensure a high-quality recording of the conversation. Or if you decide to set up a video call on Zoom, then you can make the most of Zoom's built-in video recorder.
It's important to go into the oral history process with a list of questions and prompts, as if you simply ask someone to start talking, then they won't know where to begin.
Come up with a list of open-ended questions that encourage detailed responses (rather than yes/no answers), and categorize them into themes like school, family, love, work, and historical events. That way, you'll have related questions to ask when the previous answer comes to an end.
Here are some examples of questions you could ask:
How did you and grandma/grandpa meet?
What is your favorite memory from childhood?
What were your parents like?
What has been the proudest moment in your life?
What hobbies or activities have you enjoyed over the years?
How would you like to be remembered?
What life lessons or advice would you like to pass down to future generations?
Picking somewhere quiet and comfortable to conduct and record your interviews will help your relatives to feel at ease; they'll feel more relaxed about opening up if they're in a space that feels safe and private. It's often a good idea to go to their home and let them choose exactly where they want to be filmed - perhaps in their favorite room or chair.
Choosing a quiet space also helps to ensure that the quality of the recording isn't affected by background noise or other disturbances.
If you've chosen to record video, then think about the background - perhaps a bookcase or some artwork, rather than a blank wall - and take advantage of natural lighting during the day by having your subject face a window.
This is assuming that you're doing the interview in person, but if you're doing it via the phone or Zoom, you can still encourage your family member to find somewhere quiet, comfortable, and free from distractions.
Your relative might seem nervous or even slightly reluctant at first - after all, it can feel intimidating to sit and open up about your past, especially if you're not a natural storyteller. But there are steps you can take to make them feel as relaxed as possible, and they'll soon relish the chance to reflect, reminisce, and recount their stories and anecdotes.
When you start recording, suggest that your family member looks at you, rather than directly at the camera. This will feel more natural - like you're having a regular conversation.
During the interview, make sure you actively listen to their answers, using your facial expressions and body language to show that you're paying attention and to encourage them to continue speaking. People might feel their stories aren't interesting, but assure them that they are!
Remember to ask follow-up questions to delve deeper and encourage detailed storytelling - often these unique and personal details are the best bits, and the things you'll hold on to long after they've gone.
After the interview, it's a great idea to transcribe your recordings. This helps to preserve your family stories, backing them up in the written form and ensuring those precious memories aren't lost over time.
Transcribing your oral history also makes the anecdotes more accessible for, and can serve as a foundation for creating written memoirs or family history books to pass down through the generations.
With Transcribe, you and your family can now work collaboratively on transcripts as part of a Transcribe Team. Our Teams feature enables multiple individuals to contribute to the process of documenting and preserving family history, with shared access to transcription files.
There are plenty of ways to share your recorded and transcribed family history. You could share snippets on social media platforms, or create a family history blog or website to share stories, photos, and transcripts.
You could compile the written transcripts into a written memoir or autobiography, or combine transcripts with photos in physical or digital photo albums.
And you could even organize family reunions or gatherings to share recorded stories and reminisce together.
Written By Katie Garrett