Oral history and family history
Most family historians use oral history to some extent to map out and personalise their family trees. Here are some tips for them by Cynthia Brown, Mary Stewart and Michelle Winslow – oral historians who are also interested in family history research.
How can oral history help family history?
Oral history recordings are a fantastic resource for family historians.
- provide wider context about the places where your ancestors lived, the work they did, or local and national events during their lifetimes, bringing colour and texture to complement traditional archival sources
- bring out new stories from family members about relatives alive and dead – enabling you to record the memories, experiences and opinions of your relatives while they are still alive, including capturing family stories passed down the generations
- help you to share the results of family history research in a dynamic way, incorporating sound clips into websites and presentations.
Using existing archival material
There are archives, libraries and organisations throughout the country that have collections of oral history recordings and make these available to the public. It is well worth searching the oral collections of the British Library which is the largest archive of recordings in the UK. We would also strongly recommend that you search the holdings of local archives and regional sound and video archives in the areas in which the subject of your research was based, because many oral history projects are archived in the local area, rather than in a national collection. This material can be used by the family researcher in a number of ways:
- You might strike gold and find a family member in the archives, so that you can access the stories and hear the voices of an ancestor. For example, in 2005 several family members found their grandfather’s recording online as part of the Survey of English Dialects collection and could hear his voice for the first time, as he had died before they were born. They were naturally delighted!
- Realistically, however, it is unlikely that you will find a relative’s voice within an existing oral history collection, but there may still be gems of information that will add to your family history research – by giving you information about a particular locality or industry, for instance. Here are two examples given by Cynthia Brown, using the recordings held by the East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA)
- In Leicester the local hosiery industry was a key employer and by listening to the oral history recordings one can find out important details – including the day-to-day tasks, the smells and sights, working relationships and pay. Hosiery was a major employer of women as well as men, and even if your own relatives have not been interviewed, these recordings can give real insights into work in similar conditions during the same period.
- Oral histories can provide different kinds of information about where your family lived, by:
- identifying physical characteristics, local organisations etc, as a starting point for further research
- giving more ‘impressionistic’ information e.g. people’s perceptions of relationships within the area, distinctions between ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ parts, the impressions of ‘outsiders’ and how far these were accepted as accurate
- differentiating between differing degrees of poverty
- giving a sense of what they valued about living there, and what they disliked
- providing examples of housing conditions and social interaction – including schools, shops, religious organisations and health service.
Recording new interviews
You may decide that as an alternative or in addition to using existing material, you would like to record your own interviews with members of your family. There are individuals and organisations who can do this for you on a commercial basis, but here are our tips for doing it yourself:
- get some training! The Oral History Society and British Library run a whole series of courses across the country, from one-day introductory courses, to more advanced sessions in digital editing skills, recording video oral histories and follow up days to discuss interviewing techniques. See the Courses section of the website for course details dates and booking information. Other organisations also provide training.
- make sure you have the best recording equipment for your budget. As a rule of thumb, if a recorder costs £20 then it is unlikely to make audible recordings and will probably record in a file format that will be difficult to access in the future. There is information in the advice section of the OHS website and the British Library oral history team also provide guidance about recording equipment: email email@example.com.
- what do you want to find out? One good way to think about the questions you might ask is to brainstorm “What would I ask person X about the family if s/he were still alive?”. Although you might want to find out new information and facts, oral history’s strength is to uncover the thoughts, feelings and motivations of interviewees. Remember to ask open questions (ones which require more than a yes or no answer) as these are more likely to get rich descriptions in the interviewee’s own words about a person, place or theme.
- create a content summary record for the main topics and people that are discussed in the recording, by listening back to the audio after the interview. If you wish, you can also create a verbatim transcript of the recording, but be aware that this takes a lot of time! Documenting oral history is covered as part of the Introduction to Oral History training course and the British Library oral history team can also provide summary and transcript guidelines: email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recording family - a note of caution!
In a one-to-one interview, interviewees often reveal thoughts, memories and insights that they haven’t talked about before. Whilst this is fantastic for family history research, for you as a member of the family it can also mean that you might find out information and family secrets that could potentially be distressing to you or other members of the family. Well in advance of starting to record oral history within the family, we suggest you think about the following:
- how you will explain your research to your interviewees? We suggest that you have a discussion before you start recording an interview to inform your interviewee about purpose of the recording, that the recording will be stored (either by you or in an archive) and how you plan to use the recording in your research. You will also need to indicate that you will ask the interviewee to sign a form at the end of the recording (please refer to the Copyright and Ethics section below). You may choose to write down this information for your interviewees, in addition to a verbal discussion. See the informed consent section of our advice on Being Legal and Ethical.
- family members may feel that their story is the ‘true’ or ‘real’ story, and be affronted when other relatives have different views or memories. In fact, the real value of oral history is that it can reveal varied and contrasting reflections about events and people. We suggest you also cover this point in your pre-interview discussions.
- what will you do if you hear something that is ‘secret?’ If you think this may come up in a recording, discuss in advance with your interviewee how you will handle this scenario. Does the interviewee wish for this information to be recorded as part of the oral history? If something ‘secret’ unexpectedly arises in an interview, we strongly suggest that you have a discussion with the interviewee at the end of the recording about how to share the information and that section of the audio recording. What support will you be able to get if you hear something distressing? Is there someone outside of the family to whom you can talk freely? You might also want to discuss this with other oral historians as part of a follow up and feedback training day.
Copyright and ethics
The OHS has a detailed section describing the copyrights in oral history recordings and alerting the reader to the important ethical responsibilities within oral history practice. Please refer to Being Legal and Ethical for further details
We are well aware however, that for many family historians a recording may not be destined for a formal archive, and that it may be awkward to ask a family members to assign their copyright in a recording to a third party. In conjunction with members of the BL/OHS Training Liaison Group and the OHS Archives sub-committee, we have drafted a ‘Joint Statement of Intent for Family Oral History Recordings’ which states the purpose of the interview, the ownership of copyrights, any access restrictions requested and how and where the recording will be stored. We strongly recommend that this form is filled in by both interviewer and interviewee after the recording is complete and that a copy of the form is kept with the recording at all times (either as a printed copy to be stored with the CD/DVD containing the recording or as a scanned copy to be kept with the digital audio files). A PDF copy of the Joint Statement of Intent for Family Oral History Recordings is available here.
Presenting your research and sharing your family stories
Why disseminate the results of your family history research only through text? Excerpts from oral history recordings are a great way to enliven the methods through which you share your findings with your family and the wider world
- In 2009 Mary Stewart’s family held a reunion with the local community in Dumfriesshire to celebrate her ancestors’ ongoing links to Scotland despite their migration to New Zealand in the 1880s. Over the weekend of the reunion Mary recorded short ‘vox-pop’ interviews with lots of the attendees who had travelled from New Zealand, America, Mexico and England and also people from the Scottish village. She then edited these into an audio CD to distribute the family and local community as a memento of the event. She reflected, “it is really special to have captured some of the atmosphere and emotions of everyone who attended. I’m pleased I recorded it – as are my family – even though I always cringe a bit when listening back to my own voice!”
- Oral history excerpts can be embedded in websites to add interesting anecdotes and stories to a family tree or family history document. You can also create short films by using scanned photographs and documents as the visual elements with the oral history audio recording as a soundtrack. These could be shared online using sites such as YouTube. If you wish to do this we suggest you explore the training courses in video oral history and in digital editing.
Preserving your recordings for the future
If you and your family have gone to all the effort of recording an interview, you have a duty to do all you can to ensure that the recording can be accessed in the future.
- If you and your interviewee decide to archive the interview with a local or regional archive, then they will expect to receive the audio file, paperwork to explain the ownership of copyrights in the material and also a content summary or transcript. The archive will then take the responsibility for the long term storage and accessibility of the audio files. More information is available in our advice pages on working with archives.
- If you and your interviewee decide to keep the recording stored within the family, then you have a duty to ensure that the audio file is stored and backed-up and that a copy of the signed Joint Statement of Intent for Family History Recordings is kept with the audio files. If the interviewee has requested any access restrictions for the material then you are duty-bound to honour these. More information is available in our Being Legal and Ethical advice pages.
Further reading and resources
Oral History and Family History: A Select Bibliography
A more extensive bibliography of oral history texts is here.
Suggested key texts relating to family history and oral history:
Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Walnut Creek, California: AltaMira Press, 2005 – chapter 9 in particular.
Several chapters in both editions of Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (eds), The Oral History Reader are very helpful:
- In the first edition, London: Routledge, 1998: Akemi Kikimura, ‘Family Life Histories, a Collaborative Venture,’ p.140-144.
- In the second edition London: Routledge, 2006: Ruth Finnegan, ‘Family Myths Memories and Interviewing,’ p.175-183.
- In both editions (page references are for second edition):
- Katherine Borland, “That’s Not What I Said.” Interpretative Conflict in Oral Research, p.310-321.
- Alex Haley, ‘Black History, Oral History and Genealogy,’ p.14-24.
R.L. Miller, Researching Life Stories and Family Histories, London: Sage 1999.
- Oral History Association of Australia Journal, 1981-2, vol. 4: special issue on ‘Family and local history’
- C. Parekowhai, ‘Korero taku whaea: Talk my aunt. Learning to listen to Maori women’, Oral History in New Zealand, 1992, no. 4, pp. 1-4.
- Linda Shopes, ‘Using oral history for a family history project’, in D.I. Dunaway and W.K. Baum (eds), Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, Walnut Creek, California.: AltaMira, 1996, pp. 231-240.
- J. Stanley, ‘Including the feelings: personal political testimony and self-disclosure’, Oral History, 1996, vol. 24, no. I, pp. 60-67
- Mary Stewart, ‘Interviewees, their families and the archive’, National Life Stories Review 2008/2009, p.14-15
- Mary Stewart, ‘Exploring family reactions to life story recordings’, Oral History, Volume: 41, Issue 1 (2013) (Abstract is available here)
- M. Stuart, ‘And how was it for you Mary? Self identity and meaning for oral historians’, Oral History, 1993, vol. 21, no. I, pp. 80-83
- O. Thomas, ‘Voices of the past’, Family History Monthly, July 2005, no. 119, pp. 18-23.
- D. Treleven, ‘Interviewing a close friend: First Amendment activist Frank Wilkinson’, Journal of American History, 1998, vol. 82, no. 2, pp. 611-619.
Websites Specifically Relating to Family History and Oral History
- Family Oral History Using Digital Tools [US]: http://familyoralhistory.us/
- Family Folklore: How to Collect Your Own Family Folklore [US]: http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/migrations/seek2/family.html