Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Preserving Oral Family History in Africa and other places

A recent blog post by FamilySearch about efforts to preserve the oral history of Africa, reminds us that oral history is an important component of all our genealogical efforts. We all have older members of our community with limited computer skills or even limited mobility whose minds are still active. I have a 91 year old friend who is almost completely homebound but whose mind is still sharp. I find that these people, even is they have the support of family and friends, have important stories to tell. If you want your younger family members to become involved in"genealogy," get them to help record the life stories of our older friends and relatives.

Technologically, we have come a long way from the heavy and difficult to use, reel-to-reel tape recorder I used to make recordings of my grandmother and my wife's parents. Those recordings have long since been converted to digital files, but I regret the other older relatives and friends that I missed recording. Funeral programs are now routinely recorded by mortuaries, but what happens to the recordings? How many of us are collecting and gathering these valuable life stories and preserving them in audio files and then transcribing them?

The Sony ICD-PX333 Digital Voice Recorder shown above, is just one of dozens of similar recorders with amazing high fidelity microphones and, in the case of the Sony recorders above, up to 1,073 hours of recording time in LP-MP3 format. The Sony recorders sells for less than $50.

Additionally, online programs such as Saving Memories Forever, provides services that allow you to make a recording with a smartphone and immediately upload the file for storage and sharing online.

The FamilySearch blog relates the following about preserving African oral history:
The first task for family historians is the preservation of the history. Then access to the community helps to validate the oral histories. Where people are buried is also a way to validate because everyone who dies is buried in their village.

The knowledge of ancestors is important in virtually every aspect of life from marriage to a dispute over who owns a fruit tree. If family history can document a famous forbearer, a pioneer, war leader or politician, parents may be able to claim a higher bride price. A host does not know how to treat a guest until he is aware of kin relationship, or lack thereof.

In the field, FamilySearch starts with recording of histories as they are recited by the old men. Then they can validate that information through interviews of secondary sources. The collection strategy includes getting names and stories about a particular family, or about parts of a village. Village leaders help researchers know what groups and families exist and identify primary and secondary informants. There will be one person in each family who is the authority and most everyone knows who that is. The secondary informants then help connect the branches of each family.

Researchers follow an interview protocol. They create the audio label, or the date, place, time, name of the interviewer and informant and what content they want to capture. Then they let the informant talk without worrying about specificity. The informant will relate both the village history and family history beginning with the first ancestor. Then the ancestors are integrated into a master pedigree. Open and closed ended questions of primary and secondary informants follows to verify the information. FamilySearch has found that group interviews are also important to verification.

With young men drifting to urban areas, the pressure to preserve oral genealogy is intense. FamilySearch has proven that it is possible for people to go back and connect with their families and villages. That provides hope and the goal.
Wouldn't it be a tragedy if we preserved the African heritage and lost our own oral heritage? Where ever you live, from Australia to Argentina or from Russia to South Africa, you have an oral history to preserve.


  1. Have you tried to use the Dragon Dictate 4 to transcribe a mp3 audio file? If so how did it work? I am thinking on giving it a try but hope someone could give me a ideal on how it works if at all.

    It seems like a great idea to record a person's history then use Dragon Dictate 4 to transcribe it.


    1. I just upgraded to Dragon Dictate 4 this last week and I will likely be using it to transcribe some recordings this week. I will post how it comes out.