Oral History

8 December 2021

Oral History 

Let’s talk about Oral History! Do you ever find yourself wishing that you could talk to your long-distant ancestors? If you could, what would you ask them? Would you want to find out about their lives? About stories from bygone days? Maybe even about their parents, grandparents – or even great-grandparents? 

Well, why not do the next best thing, and talk to your elderly surviving ancestors? 

By talking to relatives and gathering information about their lives and stories, you are collecting what is known as ‘oral history’; a form of research that involves living ancestors/relations giving personal perspectives and memories on events, history, and even other ancestors – potentially even those from generations gone. 

Read on to find out more about the benefits of oral history, and how YOU can prepare, interview, and preserve your own data. 


What are the benefits?

Not only is it interesting to know more about our ancestors’ lives, it’s also highly useful for building your family tree. Via conversation with your oldest living ancestors, not only will you be able to hear more about the times in which they grew up, but you may uncover leads to other ancestors that you may not have previously known about! 

The obvious benefit – especially if you are just getting started constructing your family tree – is that older ancestors, in most cases, will be able to help you build up the generations consisting of great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and possibly even beyond. This will help jump-start your research – and you might even find some interesting information about those ancestors that you never met! 

In some cases, hearing your ancestors’ perspective of stories from the past may supply a more accurate and well-rounded picture of events from history, supplying information that may not be present in publicly available material. Conversations may help you fill in information about past family event’s, such as weddings, births, funerals, and other key happenings that might be important to discovering leading information to assist in tracing your family tree. 

The final benefit we will touch on is the fact that not only are you benefiting yourself when recording oral; if recorded and preserved effectively, future generations will be able to attain a deeper understanding of those you interviewed, too.  

Let’s look at some ways in which you can prepare, record, and preserve oral history. 


How to Collect Oral History (Preparation, Interviewing, Preservation) 

So, you are now at the stage where you want to record the stories of the relatives around you. There are some important steps to take to ensure that the information that you record is kept relevant and concise, whilst allowing perspectives and opinions. 



First things first, you need to ensure that you are well prepared for the interview. Obviously, the first step is to pick a relative or relation that you are interested in interviewing. Once you’ve picked your interviewee, you next need to ask them not only if they are interested in participating, but also if they are happy for it to be recorded. 

Next step, pick a time – and an appropriate location – for the interview. It would be a good idea to ensure that the location you decide on is not only quiet (with little to no background noise), but also somewhere where you will be left uninterrupted.  

Make sure that the recording equipment you use records clearly and can be relied upon – it might even be worth bringing a second recording device as a backup. The last thing you want to happen is to get to the end of a long insightful interview just to be left with a muffled or incomplete recording! For a good guide on picking what device to use, click here. 

Think about what questions you will ask during the interview. Although it is nice to have some unstructured reminiscing, it is also important to ensure that there is a core structure to the interview. Open questions are highly important – try to avoid closed questions that can only be answered with a yes or no. In the case of family tree building, it is important here to ensure that you ask questions that could fruit new leads. 

Lastly, it might be worth asking the interviewee if there is anything that they would like to bring along for the interview – think things like diaries, awards, and other memorabilia. Sometimes items can help queue memories that might be passed by otherwise. 



The next step is the interview itself. Ensure that you both leave plenty of time to conduct the interview in its entirety – so if you are using a public place or hired location, ensure that plenty of time is left for you both to get there. 

Ensure that you avoid leading questions – you don’t want to bias your interview by wording an otherwise thought-provoking question, badly. It’s best to read your questions from the previously prepared script; however, you may want to allow time in-between for potentially insightful tangents – just ensure that the interview is always brought back on track with the next question. It’s also important to note silence shouldn’t be considered negative for the interview – sometimes it takes thinking time for the interviewee to find the answers to your questions. 

If the interview does happen to go off on a tangent, it may be around a useful topic that could benefit your research. If this is the case, it could be worth improvising questions that might dig deeper into the topic, you might hit a gold mine! 

When the interviewee is answering a question, try to avoid verbal feedback, as the recording device might record you over the interviewee’s answer. Try to replace verbal responses with nods or smiles. 

Above all else, ensure that the interview is solely focused on the life, perspective, and opinions of the interviewee. This will ensure that the information you gather is in its rawest, purest, and most human form! 



So, you are finally done with your interview, you’ve gathered some insightful information, and now you are looking to ensure that you preserve the information effectively – not only for your own future research but also for future generations. 

The first bit of advice is to download the recording onto a computer – double-check the file to ensure that it runs smoothly, without error. Maybe even make a backup, possibly even on an external hard drive, memory stick, or another secondary device. 

Next, make a transcript. There are many ways in which you could do this, be it writing down the questions and answers by hand, typing up the information physically, or possibly even using a piece of software to assist you. A good free program to use could be otter.ai – just ensure that you run the generated transcript alongside the audio recording to ensure that it’s accurate. 

If you aim to keep the interview preserved for future generations, ensure that you document it in as many mediums as possible – you never know what file formats may be rendered redundant in the future. 



If you have been contemplating doing an interview with a relative or relation with the hopes of attaining some useful oral history, hopefully, this blog helps you in progressing to the next stage of conducting one. A lot of people aren’t fortunate enough to be in a position where they can speak to their grandparents – but if you are, why not take the chance to learn a little more about their lives, opinions, and pasts? Oral history is truly timeless information, that can be passed on for generations to come. 

For more useful blogs and guides, click here.

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