by David Madrian
Given at the April 2014 Boston Stake Women’s Conference.
Telling your Family’s Story with Oral History
1. Stories that connect us
Learning more about our ancestors, including their hopes, dreams, and disappointments, helps us more literally fulfill the prophecy in Malachi: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers (Malachi 4:6).
The following quotes describe the powerful connections and influences which reach further back and forward across the generations than we might ever imagine:
- We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud. (Growing Up, Russell Baker, pg. 8)
- …our families are the extension of ourselves back infinitely and forward infinitely. The antecedents of our actions go back to our ancestors–what they have done, what they have passed on to us in the way of sin and in the way of virtue. And the consequences of our actions go forward to our descendants. Both the antecedents and the consequences are, in fact, eternal–there is no beginning and there is no end to our actions. That is why we have to thank our ancestors (that is one side of it) and to forgive them (that is the other side of it); and why our children will have to thank us and forgive us. (The Abundance of the Heart, Arthur Henry King 93)
Video 1: Influences: My great great grandmother Rosina Schober was born in the German region of Silesia in 1840. She is referred to in our family as die gläubige Frau (The Faithful Woman). She created a legacy of faith in our family, which she passed on directly to her granddaughter Frieda Arlt, my paternal grandmother, who then passed it on to my father and on down to the current generation.
In this video, my grandmother describes some of the many experiences she had with her grandmother Rosina Schober before, during and directly after World War I.
2. Art of the interview
Oral history is distinct from family history because it must be actually spoken at some point. However, oral history can be preserved in many ways, including video recordings, audio recordings, written transcriptions, or even within our memories.
As an interviewer, be purposeful about capturing more than informational details about your family (e.g. family names, places of employment, education, places of employment, etc…). Attempt to also capture your family members’ personality, sense of humor, and testimony of the gospel. While performing the interview, attempt to make a connection with the person you are interviewing, and have a real conversation. Do all you can as well to reduce inhibitions by carefully selecting your recording method, recording location, and whether or not you interview an individual or group of family members.
Video 2: Gather more than information: I made this audio recording at a recent family reunion. While the information being conveyed in this short excerpt is not so critical, the way the family is laughing and interacting is preserving a familiar feeling I have of being together with this part of my family, sharing funny stories and laughing. Heard here are my mother’s two sisters relating one of many humorous stories about their mother.
Prepare questions you would like to ask in advance, and consider sharing them ahead of time with the family member you are interviewing. Many detailed lists of oral history interview questions are available on-line, including these locations:
Below are some of the many types of questions to ask your family members:
- Holidays (especially Christmas)
- Typical days
- Favorite family stories
- Faith-promoting experiences
- Their parents, grandparents, etc.
- Non-direct ancestors
Some other ideas to consider when talking to your family include:
- Make a video recording of a family member to talking about family photos.
- Narrate your family’s home movies.
- Walk or drive around the neighborhood where your family member grew up.
- Take a tour of your family member’s house.
- Create recordings at funerals or other family gatherings where stories are told.
3. Connect your Family’s Story
Enrich your family’s story by showing their connection to the times and places they lived. Consider asking questions that link your family to specific historical events, cultural practices, and faith-related experiences and activities.
Video 4: Make Connections: This recording begins with my great grandfather talking about some of his childhood memories of growing up in England during the 1890s and early 1900s. Later on this recording, my maternal grandmother remembers the evening in 1938 when she and her husband heard Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast and how they were among the many people in the country who reacted to this broadcast as if it were really an actual invasion. Both recordings not only contain family stories that relate to actual places and events, but I’ve tried to further connect those stories to those places and events by including photos and recordings I found elsewhere of those things described by my family members.
4. Your Role as Historian
You plan an important role as a family historian. The decisions you make about how to conduct your interviews and how to later edit that information will affect how your family members are known to their descendants. You will likely encounter exaggerations, inaccuracies, and idealized perspectives in your interviews with family members. You’ll also likely encounter family skeletons. Consider carefully how you treat this sensitive information. On the one hand, it’s important to be fair to family members who are no longer around to defend themselves. On the other hand, you’re likely doing your descendants a disservice by creating an idealized and sanitized version of your family’s history. This type of family history may cause your descendants to even feel discouraged, as they wonder why their lives seem to have so many more problems than those of their ancestors.
Video 5: Family Skeletons: I share two of my many family skeletons in this video. The first story is an incident which would be considered today as child abuse. The second story is about my paternal grandfather’s involvement in the Nazi party in the 1930s.
Making these recordings available to your family members can be a great strength and blessing in their lives. Sharing these priceless treasures is easier than ever with the technology readily available today. Here are some ideas to consider for sharing your oral history recordings:
- Blog: post your recordings with transcriptions and photos so they are easily available to family members.
- Mobile devices: make .mp3 audio recordings and even compressed .mp4 video recordings available to family members to listen to or watch on mobile devices.
- Edit: create short videos like some of the five videos shared here. A short, interesting, video may capture a family member’s interest and motivate them to want to listen to more.
Talking to and recording your family members takes very little time and money, but results in something which will become a priceless treasure for your family. The important sealing ordinances we perform in our temples formalize the relationships which connect our families together. However, these ordinances are a means by which these eternal relationships themselves are made possible. Collecting and preserving our family’s oral history becomes a record of the difficult realities required sometimes to sustain and nurture these relationships but also of abiding love and touching sacrifices our family members make for one another.