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Through the years I've had several conversations with people here about Oral History. This won't be a long Diary, but I did what to write something up on the topic. I don't know who first came up with the idea, but the person I know that talked about it 24/7 was Pulitzer Prize winning history professor T. Harry Williams.

As maybe the best Civil War scholar of all time he realized that quickly those who had fought and been alive during the war were dieing. He felt it was one thing to have their words on a printed page, but wouldn't it be better to have a recording of the interview. To be able to hear their voice. For the rest of his life he recorded anybody and everybody he could, which eventually became the materials at The T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History at LSU.

The thing is in 2011 it is so stupid simple to do, to record somebody so we don't lose our history, we all should be doing it. I'm going to talk about that a little below the fold.

My father is a pretty wealthy man, so finding a gift that he will like and actual use is hard. If there is something he wants, well he already owns it. A few months ago he came over to help me with a project at my house. I noticed he had an "old school" micro cassette recorder he was using to take notes.

Now my father helped me build my first computer in 1982, so he isn't scared of technology. So why the heck wasn't he using a digital recorder he could plug into his computer and download and edit the content?

Well I got him one for Christmas. Very nice Sony for like $45. Heck most of you could just use your phone if you wanted, so it isn't expensive.

Go get yourself one and start recording oral history. Maybe it will just be your mother talking about your great grandfather. Your grandfather talking about fighting in WWII. Your aunt talking about marching in anti-war protests in the late 60s. Heck it could be your 85 year old neighbor talking about going to school in a horse and buggy. Sometimes the little stuff makes for the best story.

The person doesn't even have to be famous, cause I bet pretty much everybody you know has an interesting story (actually many stories) to tell. Somebody just needs to ask and record it. Cause the saddest thing of all, if nobody does this then they'll be lost to the dust bin of history when they pass away.

Oh and one last thought. I've done this a number of times and something kind of cool happens that brings a tear to my eyes. I've heard it time and time again, when I interview say an 85 year old women and she says, "nobody has ever asked me to talk about my life."

Originally posted to webranding on Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 02:56 PM PDT.

Also republished by Genealogy and Family History Community, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and History for Kossacks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  With So Many People Who Love History (16+ / 0-)

    I can't believe I am the only person here doing this!

    When opportunity calls pick up the phone and give it directions to your house.

    by webranding on Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 02:59:31 PM PDT

    •  I did this! and wrote a book! (15+ / 0-)

      Back in the 90s I interviewed people in my home town in Texas about my grandfather, who had been a sheriff there from the late 1930s to early 1960s. I had no experience and wasn't sure if I would get "the truth" out of people, but it turned out I heard more family secrets than I could imagine!

      I did not have any special training, so I started off each interview by asking people what their given name was at birth, and who they were named for. That got them rolling okay. Some people were known by nicknames and I got that story, too.

      It is true, a lot of people seemed to be waiting for someone to ask them about their life and memories. A non-judgmental attitude is essential, to get the story.

      by Chun Yang on Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 03:16:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  May I add (13+ / 0-)

        I used a cassette recorder with two microphones, so I could just clip one to them, one to me and then forget they were there. It helped with comfort. I have about 50 hours of hilarious and scary stories of my grandfather, life in the Depression, race relations, etc. Really rich stuff, and the book I wrote from it now is a sort of definitive history of my small town.

        by Chun Yang on Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 03:18:42 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yeah If You Want To Get Really High-tech (11+ / 0-)

          you can do that for a lot less money then you might think. You can go to a professional grade recorder with multiple mics for under $200. The audio editing software I use, Audacity, is free. heck I paid $50 for an adapter that plugs in my phone into my computer so I can record phone calls.

          If you want to do something like this the cost is time, not equipment.

          When opportunity calls pick up the phone and give it directions to your house.

          by webranding on Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 03:25:09 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I need one of those... (0+ / 0-)

            I live on the other side of the country from my parents.  I just recently realized I have never heard either of them talk about their grandparents.  And I know little about my grandparents (I never met any of them).

            Getting any phone conversations on record will help.  My memory is terrible.

            I did ask my dad about his grandmother (the only grandparent he knew) the other day.  He was about 26 when she died so he should have had a lot of contact with her, but he couldn't come up with any stories.  It has been over 60 years. I'm hoping I at least started jogging his memory and he'll remember more stories in the future.

      •  That Is So Cool. So Cool (7+ / 0-)

        How you conduct the interview is important, but IMHO not as hard as most folks think. Now I have an MA in journalism and if you are going to question a public official that does take practice.

        But for something like this I find asking open ended questions and not talking much yourself works the best. Using a little empathy can't hurt either I might add.

        When opportunity calls pick up the phone and give it directions to your house.

        by webranding on Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 03:21:41 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  The key is listening. (4+ / 0-)

          Often people will tell stories out of order or will assume incorrectly that the interviewer  has the same base of knowledge.

          When this happens, the interviewer needs to be able to ask  questions that help the interviewee to clarify their story.

          Without listening attentively this is impossible to do.  

          "Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed." The Little Prince

          by Jane Lew on Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 06:01:46 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  this is a great idea for the genealogy and (11+ / 0-)

    family history group ... especially as family reunion season approaches. Half the battle in researching family history is reconciling half-remembered stories with what really happened.

    Unfortunately, most of the "old" generation is gone on both sides of my family, so now it is a matter of trying to sort out every version of what the cousins recall having heard...not nearly as satisfying as if the original stories had been recorded.

    You go to war with the TROLLS you have, not the TROLLS you might want or wish to have at a later time.

    by klompendanser on Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 03:28:21 PM PDT

  •  For anyone who has trouble getting started (10+ / 0-)

    There's a useful question generator, and lots of inspiration, at Many of you have probably heard interviews from storycorps on NPR. A rough outline like the question generator can produce is one way to get past the enormity of "tell me your whole life story." Pick a topic, or a time, or a relationship, any discrete chunk, really, and most interviews will take off from there.

    Great urging, webranding.  

  •  This is the best idea I've heard all day! (8+ / 0-)

    Thank you.

    Just spitting out emails from my sanctimonious purity-castle.

    by porchdog1961 on Tue Apr 12, 2011 at 03:43:50 PM PDT

  •  I did it, too! (7+ / 0-)

    It was supposed to be for my dissertation, but I never finished it, of course ;) Fortunately (believe it or not) the chair of history at the University of Arkansas is excellent, and I got to take her oral history class. She ushered in the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, which has many interviews online.  It's named for one of our best ever Democratic senators, David Pryor (father of the ignominious Senator Mark :(

    When someone dies, Dr. Whayne told us, it's like losing a library. I interviewed about 10 people in the old railroad town (pop 912) where I live. The three I concentrated on when I had time had some positive results.

    One was with a woman who was the first Queen of Baxter County in 1930. When we had our annual trout festival, Katharine rode in a convertible as queen. She was about 90. An antique store displayed the dress she wore. I also got her to agree to an interview in front of the county historical society, based on what we'd already discussed, and the room was standing room only! Parts of our interview were reprinted in the local paper when she died.

    Another one was the first fishing service operator on our part of the White River in Cotter, Ark., "Trout Capital USA." He'd been featured in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal back in the day, and they gave me permission to republish. I finally self-published it for the 100th anniversary of Cotter's founding, and he was there to receive it at the birthday party for the city. It pleased everyone, including many who'd worked for him as fishing guides over the years.

    The other major one was with a fourth-generation railroad man. I haven't published it yet, and he's dead now. His was my class project, but I wasn't able to gain any recognition for him because I abruptly became a full-time caregiver when my mom broke her hip.

    Since then two elderly men have sort of hinted they'd like to be interviewed. One who I'd known since childhood had since died, and I deeply regret not having been able to interview him. He was born in a rural community and became a university president. The other is a CPA who has lived in the Ozarks his whole life, but excelled professionally while remaining a down-to-earth, small-town guy. (Helped write the state CPA exam, wears a bolo to work)

    Now, webranding, if I just had some excellent voice-recognition software to do the transcription, I could probably still find time to do the auditing and editing before he dies.  Please, if you know of such, tell me. I used Dragon Naturally Speaking in the late '90s with little success. Has it become easier, or is there an alternative? (Thanks for the link to Audacity. I could, I guess, transfer the tapes to digital and edit them with that? So many would much rather have it in print!)

    Positive reminiscence is a joy for the elderly (I learned that in collig ;), and it can be excellent for history. (Some wealthy people pay to have their personal history written.) Oh, how I wish everyone would do this with even one elderly person. It's a chance to wrap up and make meaning of their lives.

    Just stole a snip from an quick link about Erik Erikson's final stage of development:

    as older adults we can often look back on our lives with happiness and are content, feeling fulfilled with a deep sense that life has meaning and we've made a contribution to life, a feeling Erikson calls integrity. Our strength comes from a wisdom that the world is very large and we now have a detached concern for the whole of life, accepting death as the completion of life. ...

    On the other hand, some adults may reach this stage and despair at their experiences and perceived failures. They may fear death as they struggle to find a purpose to their lives, wondering "Was the trip worth it?" Alternatively, they may feel they have all the answers (not unlike going back to adolescence) and end with a strong dogmatism that only their view has been correct.

    [Personally, I haven't experienced any of the latter.]

    Thank you, thank you, webranding! Keep on pushing! Oral  history can be a major win-win.

  •  Our local library has an oral history department (3+ / 0-)

    We have as many as ten individuals trained to take oral history. We actually have a waiting list of local people requesting to be interviewed. I serve on the Board of Directors and we fully fund the oral history group's requested budgets.

  •  webranding, great idea! Would also make (4+ / 0-)

    a nice gift for those who have it all & for those who don't..

    I regret to this day that I did not record some stories my daddy told me.  He had come to visit me living in another state & over a few bourbans started telling me stories about gangsters, nightclubs, feds in the days of Al Capone as well as the early (wild) days of flight training, fighter jets & space training/aerospace mediciene.

    Amazing what a few bourbons can produce in an otherwise reticent individual.

    Youthful folly on my part to assume that I would remember the details or that he would be around later to refresh any gaps in my memory.

    Ah well, I was so delightfully stunned at what he was sharing that all I could do was listen and offer another "drink" in encouragement...


    And you are so correct that entire gens are fading away with untold treasure trove of oral histories.

    One of the reasons I so admired Studs Terkel-the oral histories from every man..

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