As we approach Christmas it is a good idea to think about making the most of those precious times with family members – especially (although not exclusively) the older members. Christmas is often the only time we spend time with family members all year and often family gatherings will trigger memories and reminiscing. All too often genealogists and other family members will lament about not asking questions about grandad’s funny accent or finding out more about what uncle Billy did in the war when it is too late.
If done sensitively a wealth of factual and anecdotal information will help to bring alive those names and dates in your tree for generations to come.
Kimberly Power on About Parenting recommends some of the following tips:
- Stay engaged with the storyteller(s) and enjoy the session
- Don’t be afraid of silence and try not to interrupt. Sometimes it takes a moment to dig deep and find the information in the storyteller’s head or it may be that they are recalling something difficult.
- Ask the right amount and type of questions but don’t make it feel like an interrogation. Having a pen and pad handy with some questions written out by way of a prompt might help and you can also jot down any thoughts on further investigations for after the session
- Follow up on the good stuff by asking additional questions and digging a bit deeper
- Be yourself and keep things natural
- Get personal by probing dark corners but gauge carefully whether it is a ‘no go’ topic or can be addressed with humour or a sense of secrecy
- Don’t challenge them on certain aspects as it is their view on a particular story
- Use props such as photos or memorabilia to trigger the memories. Ask if you can bring your scanner and ask permission to scan them. Maybe offer to digitally enhance them and make prints or put them on CDs to share by way of a ‘Thank you’.
- Make it a group session so the storytellers can work on an event or person together and fill in any missing gaps
To relax and enjoy the experience while still getting the most information out of the session I would recommend recording the session if the storyteller is happy with this. Nowadays this can be done unobtrusively with a smart phone or video camera which will soon become ‘invisible’ and give you a natural session. It’s always a good idea to practice and experiment beforehand to see what gives you the best results. Afterwards you can play and replay the recording to glean the information you want. However, please be mindful that these recordings are very personal and I would not recommend posting them on social media without explicit permission.
By capturing these memories it is a good idea to store them in such a way that they are not going to get ‘lost’. Remember to download the files and name them something that makes sense (especially years after the event) and put them in a folder that has a meaningful title and date. As always, a backup is a really good idea, especially to an external drive or memory stick which should be stored safely away from the tablet or PC in case there’s a theft or fire.
Finally, by way of a ‘Thank you’ it is a nice gesture to send the storyteller(s) a note or card. These oral histories are literally priceless and it is the least you can do – it might also ensure they will be willing to help again in the future.
For those interested in capturing oral history in a professional way, the Oral History Society has some training and also some tips – www.ohs.org.uk/training/