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How to Create an Oral Family History

Your family story is easier to tell — and more vital to preserve — than ever

spinner image Boy takes photo of family on porch. How to create an oral family history. (Ariel Skelley/Alamy)
Today's technology makes it easy to bring your family's story to vibrant life in a living, evolving multimedia document.
Ariel Skelley/Alamy

Once upon a time, family history was preserved in static photo albums, scrapbooks and journals. But today's technology makes it easy to bring your family's story to vibrant life in a living, evolving multimedia document.

Oral history — the gathering of audio and video recordings of witnesses to key events — became popular among American historians in the 1960s, when political and social upheavals coincided with the introduction of more portable recording equipment.

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Continuing technical advances since then have lent the form mass appeal. These days, with smartphones boasting high-quality cameras and microphones, and with editing programs widely available, the tools to create a family oral history are at everyone's disposal.

A family oral history project can confer benefits beyond documenting priceless lore and capturing the voice and image of cherished relatives. In his new book, The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler argues that sharing family stories — even the less flattering ones — makes for more cohesive family units.

"It turns out to be extremely important to talk about the downturns in your family, the challenges that you faced and how you overcame them," says Feiler. "It's a way of expressing to your children and grandchildren that life has inevitable ups and downs."

Such projects can also reaffirm the importance of older family members.

"The repository of family stories is often a grandparent," says Feiler. "A lot of grandparents struggle with the question of how they can connect with their grandchildren. This is a natural way to do that."

What you'll need

Starting a family oral history project — and, crucially, seeing it through — requires a bit of preparation and time.

"It takes planning," says Cliff Kuhn, executive director of the Oral History Association. "From stem to stern, there are a lot of things you need to think about."

So before you stick a microphone or camera lens in the face of an unsuspecting relative, consider how you'll accomplish these key steps:

1. Define your project

Clarity is key. Telling an entire family history in any form — but especially as an oral documentation — is a daunting project, so start small. Maybe there's a critical aspect of your childhood you'd like to recapture: dinnertime at home or a memorable family vacation. Start by gathering short vignettes. The whole story can't be told overnight, but as you collect these episodes, the larger story will begin to emerge.

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2. Keep others involved

Kuhn advises brainstorming with as many family members as you can before starting an oral history. "Get the family signed on to it," he says. "Find out what people think the key things are that need to be recorded: stories, landmarks, maybe even family sayings or jokes and family traditions." And once you start, include as many viewpoints as possible. "People have different memories of the same event," he says. "You need to represent that in a way the family feels OK about."

3. Use quality equipment

Smartphones can be used for video and audio documentation — in general, the newer the model, the better the recording. Those seeking higher quality may want to visit the website of Oral History in the Digital Age, whose consumer's guide recommends audio recording equipment ranging in cost from $100 to $2,500. "There's no excuse not to record with good sound quality," says Kuhn. Video conferencing services such as Skype and FaceTime offer recording options — especially useful for interviewing distant relatives. Inexpensive editing software is easy to find; often, as with Apple's iMovie and Microsoft's Movie Maker, it's preinstalled in the computer. Many websites offer free video- or audio-editing tools.

4. Ask leading questions

Experts advise framing questions in a way that invites expansive answers. Ask about first memories, or about happiest (and saddest) moments. The idea is to get a conversation started. "Start by interviewing a favorite older relative for practice," suggests Kuhn. "It's not just about turning on the recorder and saying, 'Tell us about the good old days.' " StoryCorps, the oral history project created by the American Folklife Center and broadcast on National Public Radio, offers suggested questions and an interactive guide.

5. Keep your word

If you've said you'll speak to every family member, or if you've pledged to send everyone a copy — carry through on those promises.

6. Savor the experience

Building a family oral history entails effort, no question, but all that advance planning should yield a fun and fruitful project. "Family oral histories foster an appreciation for listening and telling stories," says genre expert Kuhn, "and they build bonds that knit together the generations."

Austin O'Connor writes on lifestyle and entertainment topics for AARP Media.

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