Archive for Monday, January 12, 2009


Take an oral history from a family member

January 12, 2009


Conversation starters

Pattie Johnston of the Lawrence Public Library suggests some questions to ask family members while conducting an oral history.These should just get you started, she says, and should in no way be considered an exhaustive list.

• “What are your three top memories?”• “What is your earliest memory?”• “What is your happiest memory?”• “If you’d care to share it, what is your saddest memory?”• “What do you want me to know about you?”• “If you could talk to anybody again, who would that be and what would you say?”• “What do you want me not to forget about you?”

So you’re at that family reunion. People are scooping the last of the baked beans from the Crock-Pot. The kids are out playing on the playground, and nobody wants to play Jenga again.

Sounds like the perfect time for some oral history.

Oral history is a way for people to record memories of family members.

Pattie Johnston, an outreach coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt., has taken part in several different oral history presentations, both professional and personal. She says family reunions can be one of many opportunities for families to record the experiences of previous generations on video.

Oral histories can be preferable to other forms of recording people’s thoughts, she says.

“If you don’t have the real voices, you’re going to get books,” Johnston says. “You’re going to get someone else’s interpretation.”

It’s pretty easy to set up, she says. Grab a video camera, sit down and come prepared with some questions or old photographs to discuss.

Listen to what the subject is saying, she says, and it’s important not to interrupt.

“Never contradict anyone,” she says. “This is their interview. This is their history. You can ask for clarification, but don’t assume that you’re the one that’s right.”

Johnston knows a few things about oral histories; she’s been involved in two projects in the local area — one looked at local African-American history, and another collected perspectives from area World War II veterans.

Alice Fowler, a Lawrence resident, assisted with the African-American history project. She says oral histories can help tell stories that no one had ever documented before.

She says the stories can often enrich the understanding of a period of history by adding heretofore unheard elements.

“I think that the world would be better enlightened if they knew some of the real historical achievements of African-Americans,” Fowler says.

Johnston says those kinds of understandings can be promoted at the family level, too, when a grandmother relays the details of her courtship that no one has heard before, or when a great-uncle tells what a typical day at school was like for him.

It’s important to ask not just about major events — everything is relevant, Johnston says.

“It’s the little things, too, that makes them the people they are,” she says.


mom_of_three 9 years, 5 months ago

I wish now that I had a chance to listen to the stories that my great grandmother could tell about her first and second husbands, and about her mother and her husbands. Now that I am researching the family history, there are so many questions I wish I could ask.

SandCoAlmanac 9 years, 5 months ago

Pattie said: ".. Listen to what the subject is saying, she says, and it’s important not to interrupt..."This is excellent advice! I'd like to add that when some stories seem to be sliding toward boring and trivial, this is probably the most difficult time not to interrupt. Interrupting seems to diminish the trust between the interviewer and interviewee and less information will be shared. The best family histories seem to be spontaneous, so be prepared with at least a little voice recorder. You won't regret it.

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