Family history: Collecting untold stories

12/2/2020 cbw

By Tim Blackwell

I’ll be the first to admit it’s easy to think history is confined to the walls of a museum, but if you take a step back, you see that history surrounds us. It lives in every object, person, and place — with each one sharing a unique story. These stories breathe life into the items we call knick-knacks and the places we see as old or run-down. These stories give a voice to those whose lives remain untold.

You remember a time when your parents or grandparents burst into a memory from their past, recalling them with singular detail, right? If you’re like me, you listened, captivated, reliving through their words. In the moment, though, we often don’t realize the importance of this family history.

My mother loves to tell the story of how I would climb up onto my Pa’s back and ride around as if I were on horseback, pretending to be a general commanding his troops. To this day, this story makes me laugh and remember the man who helped shape the adventurous person I am today.

It is the moments within these stories that capture and share history. It is equally important that we as listeners preserve this history. The past and current generations of our families lived rich lives full of history and it is worth our efforts to uncover, collect, and preserve these untold histories.

Conducting an Oral History

Now, I know you might say, “But I’m not a trained historian!” I’m not either, but you don’t have to be a professional to collect your family’s stories. Think of an oral history as a typical conversation with a relative or family friend, only this time you’ll provide a bit of guidance and have a recording device on hand.

The conversation doesn’t have to be formal but be sure to do a bit of homework on the person you plan to interview. Think about the time period they lived in and the events they may have seen. Prepare questions to encourage them to share stories. Consider asking them about their time in grade school or other experiences you think you might have in common. This ensures you’re prepared to guide the conversation if it stagnates.

One thing you may consider is sharing your questions ahead of time with the individual you’re interviewing and inform them on how you plan to use their stories. Also think about the space for the interview — comfortable and familiar is best. Taking these few extra preliminary steps help ensure your family member or friend is comfortable throughout your conversation. Conducting an oral history should be fun and a time for you to connect with family and friends, so I encourage you to ask questions and discover as much as you can about that person’s story.

When it comes to preserving these family histories, don’t forget — modern technology streamlines the process. Access to smartphones makes it simple to record these conversations using voice recording apps. Cloud storage, such as Google Cloud and iCloud, allows us to preserve these stories forever (and share them with other family members). These resources make it simple for you and your family to record and gather these oral histories across generations and to start a project that could be carried on for lifetimes to come. A collection of family keepsakes, but with a voice.

Why Should We Collect Stories Now?

As we continue to navigate through this global pandemic, we are living in unprecedented times. But, because we are living in a pandemic, we have time with our families to start this project. Think small when you start, beginning within the bounds of your immediate family and capturing the stories of your parents “glory days.” Then, slowly work your way out to the older members of your family, capturing their unpreserved stories. Before you know it, you’ll be quite the upcoming historian curating your own collection of family stories. Which is pretty amazing, right?

By collecting the stories of your family (or your own), you are creating an archive that covers multiple generations and will last (with proper care) forever. You gain the opportunity to experience history from a first-hand account that might otherwise be unheard. Your work also provides a means for other members of your family to have the same experience. Our heritage is something to take pride in and something to uncover because it shapes who we are today.

I know it’s not a simple task to embark upon this project, but I challenge you to give it a try. Sit down with a family member and have them tell you a story from the past, ask questions, and keep discovering more and more. Your family’s untold stories hold so much history and, unfortunately, as time passes, we begin to lose these memories. So seek out the past and begin to learn the stories of your family members and, as you do, preserve them so that one day your children or grandchildren can hear the voices and stories of their ancestors.

Collecting Your Story

Don’t forget that you’re experiencing history right now and have a voice that deserves to be heard! If you want to record your story, flip the roles around and ask a family member to interview you. You might want to talk about the impact the pandemic has had on your education or how you handled the switch to remote learning. You might share what you miss about in-person classes or hanging out with your friends. Talk about it if you find learning at home easier or more difficult. Or, if you don’t feel like talking about school, share how life has been different (or the same) during the pandemic, how it makes you feel, and how you’re passing your time.

Oral History Resource

For more detailed information on creating an Oral History, be sure to see ALPLM’s lesson plan called Doing Oral Histories: Guiding Students Through a Successful Interview.​

Tim Blackwell is an intern in the ALPLM's Education Department.

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