How to record your family's oral history

As the Thanksgiving holidays approach and many of us will have the opportunity to be with different generations of family, relatives we haven’t seen in awhile, here at FamilyArchive we think this is a great opportunity to record audio interviews with your family members, even if they’re in short snippets. The best interviews and stories are focused on specifics: because the holiday isn’t just about you building your family’s archive, but actually spending time and catching up with your relatives, we think that short format interviews (10-15 minutes) prompted by one specific question can yield some excellent stories, which you can always expand upon later.


To make the best use of yours and your relative’s time, find a specific thing that you want to know about your relative. Some ideas (we’ll be using mixed pronouns in the following examples, just use whichever ones that fit your relative):


Get the recipe for the dish that he/she brings to Thanksgiving every year (if they’ll share it!). Ask how the dish came about. Did she get the recipe from her mother, aunt, etc.? Has he added something to the recipe to make it his own or adapted it because of availability of ingredients or personal preference (i.e. turning a potato dish into a sweet potato dish, adapting around allergies, or kids’ tastes)? This interview can easily be done around the dinner table, and each contributor can tell the story of their dish.


Pick a family tradition in your Thanksgiving household: watching football together, playing games after dinner, etc. Who started the tradition? What does it consist of? What memories do the family members have of this tradition through the years (i.e. the time Uncle Bob puked during charades, or Auntie Jo had a meltdown when she lost a poker hand).  Interview family members individually or have a story circle after dinner.


Ask about the first Thanksgiving each person remembers. Maybe this is from their childhood. If they’re immigrants, perhaps it’s when they first arrived to America. Interview family members individually, so they can share their memory without it being corrected by older family members who may have more vivid memories of that particular Thanksgiving. If they can’t remember their first Thanksgiving, ask for one Thanksgiving that stood out to them. What was served and who sat around the dinner table? What else did they do besides eat that day?


To record your oral history interviews, the easiest and most accessible method these days is through your smartphone. Go for your built-in video or check out the wealth of voice recorder apps on both the Android and iTunes stores:





For iPhone and iPad, we have used Voice Record Pro (free) and Voice Memos (built-in), though you should choose whatever interface works for you.


What we would look for is:

ability to use your built-in microphone (for ease);

ability to export your recordings in an easily read format, such as .wav, .mp3, or .mp4 files;

easy ability to quickly backup your recordings, either through emailing the recording to yourself, or by plugging the phone or tablet into the computer.


A bonus tool:

StoryCorps App

The organization that gives everyday stories a voice through their partnerships with the Library of Congress and NPR has launched an iOS (Apple) app, available at iTunes, through which you can prepare and record your interviews. The app is very easy to use, and you can prepare for your interview either by choosing questions from their lists, or writing your own. You record through the app, which uses your iPhone’s internal microphone, and can take a picture of you and your interviewee after you’ve completed the interview, title and keyword the interview. The app is currently in public beta, so they’re still working out bugs and figuring out how to make it better. For me though, a huge flaw is that you can’t export the interview file to an mp3 with metadata (your keywords and title) unless you upload the file to StoryCorps’ website, where it will be made publicly available to other StoryCorps users and the Library of Congress. You may delete the file after it’s published; however StoryCorps can’t guarantee that your file will be deleted from third-party applications, such as SoundCloud or Library of Congress.


If privacy is not an issue for you, and you’re happy to make your recordings publicly available, the StoryCorps app is a great tool to create your oral history recordings. Otherwise, use one of the apps mentioned in the above links, which will store your recordings locally to your phone, and you can decide what steps to take next.


We hope this post is helpful and inspirational to you! We look forward to hearing how you incorporate family archiving into your family traditions. Next time we’ll talk about the next steps you can take once you’ve gathered all these great stories!