The recent pandemic was a wake up call for many parts of our personal lives. Perhaps you are now a member of your family’s “oldest” living generation. Maybe your grandparents or great grandparents are in failing health and you have questions about their history. Possibly you are reflecting on the events of the past year and a half and want to preserve your experiences for posterity.
This would be a wonderful time to capture the memories!
In the past week, I’ve received emails requesting how to info on this topic. Here goes…
The simplest way is a face to face interview with a loved one. They know you and you know them – that relationship has already been established and trust is vital when sharing of personal information is about to occur.
If you have a video recorder and a tripod you are ready to go. If not, check the capability of your smart phone. Mine has an awesome camera but a so-so recorder. There are work arounds in that situation; record with your phone and use a separate recorder for the sound. It’s not a wonderful solution but it’s better than not preserving the memory.
Before you begin, think of who you plan on meeting with. This isn’t about you – it’s about them – so make sure you get permission to record the interview. Keep in mind, like the past year, a person’s life is not always rosy. Some of the memories may be painful. Some may cause hurt feelings to relatives that are still living. I’m not saying to avoid touchy situations. I’m cautioning you to think about what you plan to do with the recorded memory. Posting it online could be a major privacy problem. Make sure you inform the interviewee what your intent is with the finished product. You may want to even get written permission. As a professional genealogist I would most certainly do that. If it is between you and a close family member, you may, instead, mention that your interviewee has given consent for the interview and what you plan to do with the recording on the recording itself. The interviewee can acknowledge the agreement.
Here’s how my family handled that situation in the 1980’s – When video recorders first came out my husband and I couldn’t afford one to film our first born. As a surprise Christmas present, my in-laws purchased a recorder for us. They were shipping it to us from the Midwest and my father-in-law wanted to make sure it worked. He then got a brilliant idea to go around to various relatives in his area and record them so that our child would be able to “meet” the family. He contacted the family members and arranged for a day/time that was best for them. Some of the filming was outside their home, others wanted to come to his house. He started every interview with “This is Dad. I’m at Uncle Bob’s house. Today is November 16, 1985. Uncle Bob is your Mom’s brother.” Then Uncle Bob is filmed and he says, “Hi.” He goes on to tell us about his day – some were planning on going to work, others mentioned that they just got home from church and the church’s name is given. Lots of genealogical breadcrumbs were given for future family historians who might not know this information.
The important piece above is that you record who is interviewing, who is being interviewed, the date and place of the interview and the relationship. God bless my father-in-law! He had NO GENEALOGICAL background and he did an awesome job for posterity.
That tape was done on the old clunky large VCR Beta format. Keep in mind whatever you are using will eventually become old tech. You will have to keep reformatting it to the latest and greatest in the years to come. I’d make a few copies. Give one to the interviewee. With the interviewee’s permission, you can give some to other family members. Why? Because bad things happen to good people! Houses burn down, weather disasters occur, people lose items. The more copies out there in different parts of the world the greater the likelihood that one will survive. Think of that old family Bible you are searching for. If there was more than 1 family Bible recording those birth dates from 1730 you’d be in great shape, wouldn’t you?!
Now that you know who you will interview, you have permission and you have arranged a day/time that is best for the interviewee, it’s time to think about interview questions. Below are some ready made questions to choose from:
Or you can devise a list of your own questions. Some folks do better with a prompt instead of a question. For example, instead of asking “Where did you go to school?” you may prompt for school information by stating, “It’s almost back to school time, I’m interested in learning more about your school experiences.”
Try to avoid asking a lot of closed questions which are questions that have a specific short answer. Asking for the interviewee’s date and place of birth is important. You would expect a few words to answer that query. Asking “Do you remember the location of where you first lived as a child?” will give a response of either yes or no. If the answer is “Yes” then you want the interviewee to elaborate and provide more information.
Be cognizant of your interviewee – is he/she/they getting tired? If so, end the interview and arrange to meet again later. The length of the interview is determined by the interviewee. The content of the interviewee provided information is determined by the interviewee. If you ask about a topic that is uncomfortable for the interviewee – let it go. It is true you may never hear the individual tell you that “secret” information you are asking about. That’s hard, I know that from personal experience, but you must respect the interviewee. If they are not ready to share it you must accept it.
I also recommend that you have tissues and water available. Your interviewee or you may not need them but it’s best to be prepared.
At the conclusion of the interview, end the recording by stating “This is the end of the interview with (insert the name of the individual) on (insert the date) at (insert the place). If the information gets cut off at the beginning, you’ve got it at the end. It also lets listeners know they have the complete interview.
Sure, all of this sound fairly easy but there may be some kinks in your plans. If you don’t have a recorder or are not able to meet face to face with the interviewee, consider using aps for Zoom, Go To Meeting or Teams. A video meeting can be scheduled and will record the interview. That’s a nice feature if you have permission to send other family members the recording – you will just need to send them the link of the recorded “meeting.” If you aren’t familiar with one of the companies I linked to, you may know of another that hosts meetings. I’ve used the three I mentioned and all are simple to use. Check out their FAQ page to get started.
If you would like the interview saved with the Library of Congress, another option for recording is using StoryCorps. I have not personally used that program but think it is an awesome idea. Recording are limited to 40 minutes.
Lastly, don’t forget you can interview yourself. Your story is just as important as your family members. Have I done that? No, but it is on my to-do list. Put it on yours, too.