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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Heart of the Story -- The Oral Interview

This is a masterful example of an oral interview. If the story is the heart of genealogy, then the oral interview is the heart of the story. Think of what is lost without the sound and music of this wonderful lady. Then consider how many people you know who have their own stories. Then think what would happen if that story was lost. Get yourself an inexpensive digital recorder and sit down and preserve the stories.

It might be a good idea to be prepared. Take time to talk to the person who has the story. Help them feel comfortable with the process and let them handle your recorder. Make sure you get their permission to conduct the interview and have it preserved. In my current round of oral interviews, I have arranged with the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library at Brigham Young University to archive, transcribe and catalog the interviews. This can be one interview or a whole series on a specific topic.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of websites dedicated to oral interviews. I suggest looking at the sites that are academically involved in collecting history and folkways. My favorite is the Library of Congress, The American Folklife Center. I have been listening to parts of the Alan Lomax Collection since I was a teenager. Another one of my favorites is Studs Terkel. On the radio for over 45 years, to quote his website, Studs Terkel discussed every aspect of 20th-century life with movers, shakers, artists, celebrities, and working folks. From civil rights to labor to jazz, his work spanned an impressive array of topics and figures. The current archive of his "interviews" is on Popup

Don't get bogged down in dates, names and places. Tell your prospective interviewee that you are interested in stories. Don't stop them once they get started and stop asking questions as long as they talk. Do not ask for names and dates, ask for memories. I only wish I had done more interviewing and less talking.

For more information see the following documents:

Don't get wrapped up in technique. Just let them talk.


  1. Nice interview and terrific music. Thanks for posting.

  2. I too enjoy interviewing the golden oldies, hardly any questions just let them ramble on becomes very fascinating in what they done in yesteryear.
    I use an Mp3player that has Bluetooth and send it to my tablet much more discreet so to speak as the Mp3player is tucked away in my top pocket out of sight. The reason for this is that most oldies donot like a microphone shoved in their face so I respect their wishers and ask if I can put this new technology into my pocket and still record the conversation which usually ends up happening. I found also that if I started throwing questions left right and center they would clam up. so I scrapped that idea and let them do their own thing. One thing I do, do is thank them, stating that it will not go with them when they pass on and that it will be a major part of Family History for many many years to come even when I leave this earth.
    If only everyone could be a story teller, the stories you would hear would be endless.