“Speak, memory”: Part Two

Knapper Cressey
Courtesy of alexandriava.gov

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about preparing to interview family members as part of an oral history.

Conducting the Interviews

When selecting family members to interview for your oral history, it is always best to begin with family members who will be comfortable discussing the past and their memories of it; there is a chance that other, less enthusiastic family members will be encouraged to participate after seeing the product of successful interviews.[1]

It is always important to ask a potential subject if they would like to be interviewed well in advance of when you plan to conduct an interview. This will allow them time to think about their family history and also to locate any important information or artifacts they are willing to share.[2] Donald A. Ritchie also advises obtaining legal releases in the event that tapes and transcripts of interviews might be donated to a library, historical society, or other archive.[3]

Ritchie also advocates asking family members not only about pleasant memories, but also engaging in discussions about topics such as feuds or deaths.[4] While these subjects may be helpful to develop a wider picture regarding the history of your family, they are not always necessary and may cause the subject to become uncomfortable, and for this reason, they should only be discussed if the subject is agreeable. The topics you plan to discuss should be considered before conducting the interview. When the time comes to sit down with your relatives and conduct interviews, it is useful to ask questions that are open-ended enough to allow the subject to expand the framework of the discussion, but also specific enough to allow the interviewee to know where to begin. Again, the questionnaire mentioned in yesterday’s post is an excellent guide; however, you may wish to tailor the questions to better suit your goals.

The medium you choose for recording an interview can play a significant role in how the interview is eventually utilized. While simply writing responses by hand or even recording audio of an interview is often the simplest method, videotaping the discussions has several benefits. Above all else, video recordings are ideal for preserving an individual’s presence and their voice. However, other less obvious benefits must also be considered. One example of such benefits comes from an interview conducted by University of Vermont professor Richard Sweterlitsch, who was conducting an interview about the granite industry in Barre, Vermont, with Sophia Bielli, an Italian-American woman. Sweterlitsch later explained how Bielli spoke with her hands and used her facial expressions and eyes to communicate an intensity that likely would not have translated as well in a simple audio format.[5] The methods of communication employed by the subject must always be considered when determining which format to use.

After the Interview

It is imperative to remember that some relatives may not possess a strong desire to participate in an interview or may have strong feelings regarding particular events or periods, all factors which might have an impact on the outcome of the interview. It is important that you, as a family historian, conduct appropriate background research and interview several family members about similar topics in order to verify any accounts which you feel may present issues.[6] Another thought worthy of consideration is the fact that the information you receive is not just a product of the era being discussed:  it is a product of today.[7] This is not to say that information gathered at a later date is without merit, but is simply a thought to consider, as memories may change over time and shifting opinions and interests may change how one sees the past.

Oral histories are useful to historians not just within your own family, but across society. Historians have taken to studying family histories and first-hand accounts of everyday individuals as a way of understanding how people lived in the past. After conducting interviews and receiving the consent of your subjects, I urge you to consider donating a copy of your work to your local historical society or library, as it may serve other historians well in the years to come.


[1] Linda Shopes, “Using Oral History for a Family History Project,” in David K. Dunaway and Willa K. Baum, eds., Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira, 1996), p. 234.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 231.

[4] Ibid., p. 232.

[5] Ibid., p. 134.

[6] Shopes, p. 238.

[7] Ronald J. Grele, Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History (New York: Praeger, 1991), p. 206.

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary Garceau joined the Research and Library Services team in 2014 after receiving a master’s degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in History from the University of Rhode Island. Zack also works for the Rhode Island Department of Health as the Chief of the Office of Health Regulation. Areas of expertise: Rhode Island, French-Canadian Genealogy and Sports History. He also enjoys working on heraldic and royal research.

2 thoughts on ““Speak, memory”: Part Two

  1. Your suggestion to cross check information is very important. As one of my sisters said, her sons tell things that happened in their childhood that were not at all how she remembers them – and she was the adult at the time. I have found this in researching a 19th c. family as well: a younger son’s memory of a migration date is different from that of his older siblings.

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful discussion. It certainly does make a difference to prepare for an interview, to make the most of the time we have with these precious resources! But also be flexible: sometimes interviews such as these can take unexpected turns- go with the flow! There are gems in there.

    I found that often the discussion would come back to the same event or set of circumstances more than once, sometimes repeatedly. In interviewing my aunt, sometimes it might seem that we were going over old ground. There seemed to be four main starting points. But I soon learned that retelling sparked recall, not only of additional information, but almost always spun off other stories that were related in some way. I was unable to record her as she has never got over her discomfort with that. But I took copious notes, often checking with her that I captured her memories accurately- which often triggered the recall of more memories. This made her part of the process, and she became intensely interested in what I was doing. Now when I call or visit, she is often ready with something new that came to mind after our last discussion. In talking about my family (her married-in family), I learned that she knew very little about her own family beyond her parents and a couple of uncles. So I began working on her genealogy, and was able to trace most of her lines back five or six generations. The information I was able to find about the individuals helped bring them alive for her.

    By the way, I will add that every single thing in my aunt’s stories that I’ve been able to check has turned out to be as she said, right down to spellings of unusual names of relatives, names of obscure roads and neighbors where her parents’ homesteads were, and dates and places of births. I’m amazed. This fact gives credibility to the purely personal recollections of events that cannot be documented.

    It is coming to a close, because as she approaches her 98th birthday, her memories are becoming vague. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to interview her in such detail. I wish I had done more formal interviewing when others of the previous generation were still living, but I do have many family stories to draw on from listening intently over the years (my family were natural story-tellers, to performance level!). I have one living brother, and I want to interview him too, as well as some cousins. They are some years younger than I am, and will have a different perspective that could shed light on some aspects of our family.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.