Weave a Family Tapestry Through Oral Histories

Genealogy is much more than names and dates. They say everyone has a story, and it’s true. The precious memories of your parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and family friends, are all threads of your family’s tapestry.

Often you hear, “I wish I had asked that question while Grandmother was still alive.” Sadly, this is often the case. Collecting your family’s stories can be a project that the entire family can enjoy together, and a way to connect younger generations to older ones.

Here are some tips on collecting and preserving your family stories. A PDF downloadable list of oral history prompts can be found here. Check your downloads folder.

You can sit down formally or spontaneously. Choose a comfortable spot that’s free of noises and interruptions.

Once the stories come pouring out, you may have trouble keeping up. Be prepared to set a recording device. It could be the movie feature of your cell phone, or a digital or tape recorder.

A good place to spark a conversation is with family photos. Begin by identifying the people in the photo and their relationship. Where was the photo taken? Approximate year? Why was the photo taken?

Another good way to start a conversation is by exploring your family tree, or pulling out an old family bible.

Always try to ask open-ended questions, and let your subject do the talking. Find out not only what the person did, but what they thought and felt about it at the time.

Listen actively and intently. Encourage them and show them that you’re interested in what they’re saying.

Try not to interrupt. Allow time for silence.

Stay flexible. One story often leads to another. Watch for and pick up on topics that spring from their story. You don’t have to “stick to the script” of a list of questions.

If you don’t understand a subject, ask them to explain. If they use unfamiliar words or phrases, ask them what they mean.  

Stories don’t have to always be personal ones. Allow them to talk about life and times, the people that they remember, jokes they love to tell, and expressions they use.

Be aware that some topics may be too sensitive to discuss. On the other hand, you can learn a lot from family gossip if the interviewee is willing to divulge.

Keep it simple. You won’t be able to cover the entire span of a lifetime in one sitting, or even two. Choose one topic to explore, such as their school days.

Set a time limit for yourself. Older people may tire after just a half hour. Ask, “Are you getting tired? Would you like to continue another time?”

After the interview, copy or download your work in a safe place, and transcribe it as soon as possible.

The stories you gather are priceless and unique. The Historical Association welcomes transcripts of these oral histories to add to our collection. If you choose to share your work with the Lincoln County Historical Association, it must come with a signed release from your subject. For more information, contact us at LincolnCountyHistoryNC@gmail.com.