Is Oral History Valuable For Genealogists?

“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 LifeThe 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

Fred & I – 1989

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.

(Update: As of Nov 14th 2013 please contact me via email at louise@15minutepowerplayswithyourkids.com, visit the 15 Minute Power Plays With Your Kids ebook Facebook or Twitter Page or visit the website www.15minutepowerplayswithyourkids.com If you happen to stumble across this post and it’s NOT because I’ve linked to it from my book, pop over and say hi anyway :-). Please  DO NOT go to my previous website at www.itsmylifeproject.com.au as it has been hacked)

Keep smiling

Louise @itsmylifedvds

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6 Responses to “Is Oral History Valuable For Genealogists?”

  1. Jack Robinson Says:

    I agree with your comments. I have interviewed many people and rec’d some interesting “facts.”

    I would like to add, to your comments, that advance preparations are needed in order to ask, “the right questions.” Also, when dealing with strangers, it takes time to be accepted by that person.

    If not, they will tell you only what you want to hear. I give copies of my interview to the interviewee so they can share with their families.

    I spent about three months talking with a gentleman about his soft-shell pecan tree in his back yard before I sat down with him. What a story he told.

    I have some interviews on YouTube:
    http://www.youtube.com/Historian1812

    Have fun in what you are doing.

    Jack

    • itsmylifedvds Says:

      Thanks so much Jack – and so sorry for not replying earlier. These comments are meant to come through to my email, but somehow they don’t seem to have, so I have had 3 pending approval! Fairly new to blogging, so I apologise.

      I agree that advance preparation is very important with oral history interviews, although as I’ve done so many now, I rarely look at any notes I’ve done. The interview just flows from one question to the next, but that’s because I’ve done so many now that I have a range of “starter” questions and I then use the answers to go deeper with the next questions. I then have a few questions I always ask at the end such as “What would you say you’re most proud of in your life?” and “If you had one wish, what would it be?”. These elicit very interesting answers and often give you more of an idea about the person’s values and personality.

      Re gaining the trust of ‘strangers’, there is certainly an art to it. I would have to say that is one of my gifts in that I can gain people’s trust very quickly and get strangers to open up to me within a short time. I realise that is rare – sometimes I take it for granted though. I often have family members of the interviewee tell me that the interviewee doesn’t like to talk about ‘X’ or that they’re quite shy, but then I find the person naturally starts to tell me about the “X” topic and often so-called “shy” people are the ones I can’t get to stop talking.

      I definitely always have a pre-interview consultation, which is aimed at building rapport and trust. I find this is usually enough to get the person comfortable, but this is bearing in mind they’ve already agreed to be interviewed by this stage. Getting a person to agree to an interview is often the difficult part. The gentleman you refer to with the pecan tree sounds like my Nana. It took me about 3 years to get her to a point where she’d let me video an interview with her – even though we are extremely close.

      I look forward to checking out your videos on youtube.

      Keep Smiling

      Louise

  2. Ros Bott Says:

    Hi Louise

    I totally agree. As a professional genealogist, of course I would say that all stories should be verified by evidence as much as possible – but at the same time family stories, whether verifiable or not, add a real human touch to dry facts.

    Even if the stories are not completely accurate, they often show us something about the characters of our ancestors, and that kind of information is, as you say, invaluable.

    Oral history has a part to play in all historical research. I studied it when I did my degree – yes, it is important to realise that people’s memories play tricks, and they sometimes have reasons for hiding or embellishing facts – but as long as we remember this, oral history can be a vital source of information that we may not otherwise have known.

    Ros

    • itsmylifedvds Says:

      Hi Ros

      So sorry about the late reply. I didn’t receive the comment via email, so didn’t realise it was here. Not sure what’s going on there.

      Thank you for your reply to my blog post.

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that family stories (or oral stories) “add a real human touch to dry facts”. That’s what I love about oral history – getting some meat on the bare bones that we quite often only have. The other day when I interviewed my grandfather’s cousin (94 y.o), I was able to ask him about my great great grandfather’s personality. You don’t get that from Births, Deaths & Marriages!

      I’ve just written a blog about that interview. Hopefully you’ll enjoy that too. I’ll have to look up your site too.

      All the best with your professional genealogy work

      Keep Smiling

      Louise

  3. Greg Lawrence Says:

    I agree absolutely with you Lousie, but then I would say that wouldn’t I. I am an oral historian.

    In truth though it’s excellent knowing the facts but it is even better when those facts become a part of the story. perhaps for some they are fact hunters or date collectors but most genealogists I have spoken too love the story. After all we don’t jsut put a list of facts on TV and call it a show do we?

    Yes don’t rely on the memory for “facts” check them and double check them if that is imprtant to your research and/or retelling the story 100% accurately but give me a sniff of the excitement of a real person telling there’s or a family story… I am captivated and I bet most others are too!

    • itsmylifedvds Says:

      So sorry for the late reply Greg! I’m so glad to hear from another oral historian. I just interviewed the oldest member of my extended family on Friday – wow! Just like opening a history book & getting to ask it questions. Am about to blog about it now. Do you have a blog? I’ll Google you and have a look. Keep Smiling – Louise

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