The Voices of History

Earlier this week, we shared the stories of some of the ordinary Delawareans who are represented in the collections of the Delaware Historical Society. We can tell the stories of people who lived long ago through their writings, photographs, or things they owned, but when we want to collect the stories of those who are still living, we have an additional opportunity to preserve a person’s story in their own words through oral history. Oral history interviews give a literal voice to those whose stories may be left out of the written record, and they allow listeners to experience history from the unique and multifaceted perspective of a particular individual in a way that is just not possible through a textbook.

You don’t have to be a du Pont to have a story worth telling!

Oral history interviews are not just for scholars or professionals – they are an extremely important tool for genealogists and family historians, too. It’s easy to get started! All you need is a recording device like a portable tape recorder, digital audio recorder, or video camera; a pencil and a pad of paper; and a willing interviewee. “But nobody in my family has done anything interesting!” you might say. Well, with a little digging, you might find out that Great Aunt Sally helped to build tanks during World War II or that Cousin Bill crisscrossed the US during a two-year stint as a long-haul trucker during the 1970s. Almost everyone has at least a few interesting stories to tell, and you won’t find out until you ask.

Plenty of topics can provide a jumping-off point:

  • Have any of your relatives served in the military?
  • Has anyone worked in an industry that has changed substantially over the course of his or her career, or worked in a factory or even an industry that no longer exists?
  • Did anyone immigrate to the United States from another country?
  • What was your relative’s life like before TVs, computers, or iPhones existed?
  • What was school like when your relative was a child?
  • Did family members live in a city that has changed over the years? Did they live in an area that was once rural but has now become urban or suburban?
Tape, photographs, and memorabilia from Grace Weiss’s oral history interview with the Dravo Oral History Project.


Some DOs and DON’Ts of Oral History

  • DO pick a quiet location for the interview. Fans, air conditioners, traffic, and other people talking can all make it hard to understand the recordings when they are played later.
  • DO be sure that you know how to use your recording equipment before the interview. Practice with it in advance, and check that it’s working before starting the interview.
  • DO ask open-ended questions – this is the key to a good oral history interview. Instead of asking, “Where did you go to school?” ask, “Can you tell me a few of the things you remember about your elementary school?”
  • DON’T be afraid to ask the interviewee, “Can you tell me more about that?” if they did not go into much detail. If the interviewee is clearly upset by a question, steer the conversation to a different topic or offer to take a break from recording for a few minutes.
  • DO have an agenda prepared with questions or topics that you want to explore, but DON’T be afraid to deviate from your agenda if the conversation goes in a different direction.
  • DON’T ask more than one question at a time. If you want to ask your grandfather about his childhood home and neighborhood, first ask, “Can you tell me a bit about your childhood home?” and then follow up with, “And what are some things you remember about the neighborhood?”
  • DON’T ask leading questions like, “That must have made you really mad, huh?” Instead ask a neutral question: “How did that make you feel?” If the person was mad, he or she will probably tell you!
  • DO consider transcribing the interview if you have time, or ask another family member to help. Listening to the original interview is best, but it will be easier to share with others if it’s transcribed, and the transcript will provide a back-up in case something happens to the original recording.

Conducting an oral history interview can seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be! This Thanksgiving when Uncle Chuck is telling the story about the college prank that he and his buddies pulled – again – why not ask if he would be willing to sit down sometime for an interview? You might learn something new about him – and, worst case scenario, your grandchildren will probably love listening to Great-Great-Uncle Chuck’s stories on tape!

— Jennifer M.

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