“There are places I remember all my life though some have changed. Some forever not for better, Some have gone, and some remain. All these places have their moments, with lovers and friends I still can recall. Some are dead and some are living. In my life, I’ve loved them all.” – In My Life – The Beatles (Lennon/McCartney)
My motto is “Everyone has a story”, and I am continually advocating that people tell their life story on camera or record their loved ones telling their story.
I am very clear about one thing, however. A story is just that, a story. It is not necessarily fact. Actually I would go so far as to say stories are never fact. Stories are one person’s interpretation of something that happened at a certain time. Get them to tell that story again and they will almost always tell it slightly differently.
Hence, oral history in the area of genealogy has its pitfalls, as most genealogists will attest to. If you’re looking for facts, oral history is just one part of the puzzle. Sometimes, however, on certain matters the only material you have on that matter is the recollection of one person. Other times, there are opportunities to cross-check dates, stories etc with other people or official records. But of course, even these can be innacurate.
What I’m basically exploring here is how valuable is oral history or personal video biography to genealogists? Well, I would still say that oral history is invaluable to genealogists. There are a number of reasons for this.
1. Dates and marriage/birth certificates are all very well, but they tell us nothing about the day of the event, birth or marriage or the people involved. People who were around at these times can give us the juicy stuff – a description of the wedding breakfast, the weather the day Johnny was born or the celebrations in their town on Armistice Day in 1918. Dates & certificates are the bones; oral stories are the flesh that makes the body whole.
2. If you’re totally hooked up on ‘facts’, you can miss some amazing stories. Now some people may embellish the facts, but in amongst it you get a few ‘facts’, while also often getting a fascinating story.
3. ‘Facts’ are often just a story that appears real. One could propose that there is no such thing as facts. For instance, a person in Australia could be said to be born at 4am on December 28th, however, in Germany at that moment it was 6pm. So what time was the baby born? I could go on with more philosophical hoo-ha, but you get my meaning.
4. My favourite part about filming and recording people telling their stories is that in the telling of the story you really get a sense of who that person is. You get a sense of what’s important to them, their values, their loves, their
personality. What a wonderful way to capture who that person is/was! It might not all be roses, but it’s way more real than a headstone that just says – Fred Smith b.18.4.1927 d. 4.11.2001 Beloved husband of Betty (thankfully I did interview Freddo; he was my granddad, despite the apparent generic example ; )
5. Regardless of who it is you’re interviewing, taking time to hear their stories and taking a
genuine interest in them will almost always bring you an increased sense of closeness to that person – even if you already think you’re as close as you could possibly be with them. And guess what? I can almost guarantee you’ll hear something you’ve never heard. It doesn’t matter how well I know my interviewee, I always walk away with some new knowledge. Of course the key is to ask the right questions, but more on that in a later blog.
Look, I could go on and on about why oral history is an essential part of genealogy. It’s only my opinion. I’d love to hear yours.
Disclaimer: I’m not a genealogist. I’m interested in genealogy, but at this stage I’m more intested in capturing stories on film of the relatives who are living, breathing witnesses to our family history now.