Oral history is one of the most important arrows in the historian’s quiver. Source documents, photographs, databases and the like offer their own advantages, but audio and/or video interviews deliver information not available with other types of media.
It’s one thing to read about someone and the details of their life. But being able to hear them tell the stories in their own words and voice adds immeasurably to the picture. Hearing the richness of their voice, the style of speaking, the accent; it makes them present in a way not possible with documents. This is why I so strongly recommend families conduct oral history interviews with parents, grandparents and other key relatives. Get the kids involved!
Most people love talking about their experiences growing up, so oftentimes there are no problems getting a willing “victim” to participate. However, sometimes a person is hesitant to be interviewed, especially if the topic is painful (such as war experiences). I recall having an incredible conversation one Christmas Eve with an elderly gentleman, who opened up and shared incredible detail about his participation in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. He’d never talked about it with his family. This was before smart phones or I could have captured the talk for posterity. How I wish I had.
Be respectful but persistent in pursuing participation. What at the time might seem like “no big deal” will be priceless just a few years later when that person has died and their voice silenced.
While it is always good to prepare for such an interview with a list of questions, you don’t have to make it too complicated. A simple question, such as, “What was life like growing up?” can result in an hourlong monologue. All you need is the time, a quiet place and a dependable recording device. I have used both iPhone and iPad to record family history. Both have built-in voice memo functions, but I use a $1.99 application called Voice Recorder HD from eFUSION (it can be purchased in the iTunes App Store and Google Play store).
When you do the interview, resist the urge to speak over the subject. Ask a question and sit back and listen. Try to avoid verbal tics such as the ever-present “mm-hmm,” or the “oh, I know!” Even if a bit of silence is uncomfortable, let it be. It will very often be followed by some of the best content of the interview. It lessens the risk that your own voice will obscure a great moment in the story.
Below you can listen to a nearly 3 minute snippet from my late father, David D. Hanneman, talking about growing up the son of a pharmacist. His father Carl Hanneman (1901-1982) served as a druggist in Wisconsin Rapids, Mauston, Janesville, Fond du Lac and Sun Prairie over a nearly six-decade career. I recorded this talk in 2006 at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wis., when Dad was being treated for the cancer that eventually took his life. How I wish I had hours more, but I am so grateful to have the 47 minutes from that late November afternoon.
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