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Oral histories can help preserve family stories

Oral histories can help preserve family stories

December 30th, 2013 in News

Editor's note: This is the final part in a four-part series from Secretary of State Jason Kander's Office focusing on ways Missouri families can take advantage of holiday celebrations to better understand their past and improve their family records. The series appeared in our Monday editions.

By the Secretary of State's office

What a learning experience it would be to hear about life from your relatives who were alive 100 and 150 years ago.

Providing the kind of insight those conversations would have given is where oral histories prove invaluable. They offer a personalized view of history, and all genealogists should consider recording them to help preserve these unique perspectives.

"Family historians not only research the past, they document the present for the future genealogists among their children, nieces and nephews," said Secretary of State Jason Kander, who oversees the Missouri State Archives.

Events like holiday get-togethers are perfect opportunities to start collecting oral histories. To begin, think about which of your family members would be most willing to share memories and reflect on his or her life. Once you've chosen a good candidate among your relatives, explain what you want to do, and take careful consideration of any questions before asking him or her to participate.

After a family member agrees, consider where and how the conversation will take place. It is important that the subject be comfortable, so the Missouri State Archives recommends working in familiar settings like the family room or kitchen. As technology advances, it may seem like a video camera would be ideal to record the

conversation, but in many cases, individuals find being on camera uncomfortable or intimidating. Consequently, using a simple audio recorder is generally the best approach.

Most smartphones contain audio recording software. Using tools like these can make transferring the recording to a computer, where it is often easiest to listen to and learn from the recording, relatively seamless.

Before the interview, think about what open-ended questions will best help the subject tell his or her story. Your primary role is to guide the conversation so that the subject addresses the most important events in his or her life. Silence can often be a good thing, as it allows the conversation to move along at its own pace with ample opportunities for the subject's words to come forward.

When the time finally arrives, make sure your relative is seated comfortably. As the conversation progresses, occasionally ask relative how he or she is doing. Oral histories can be surprisingly tiring, so it may feel like you've only cracked the surface by the time your relative is ready to wrap up.

Don't let a seemingly short sessions stress you out. As with all aspects of genealogy, recording oral histories is an ongoing process. Your relative may very well remember additional details at a later session or a later time, which is very common.

The most important audience to share with, of course, is your family, but as you develop your new set of genealogical skills, consider creating a comprehensive volume that you can share with the larger genealogical community. The Missouri State Archives maintains a wonderful collection of Missouri family histories and would be more than happy to add yours. For more information about donating a family history, contact the reference staff at or 573-751-3280.