Oral Histories of your Family: Questions I Failed to Ask
With age, I’ve become more aware of the questions I should have asked my parents and grandparents. Like many others, I was interested in my family’s history. For example, I have long treasured my “Aunt Ann’s” family bible with key dates and events recorded in her handwriting. I used this and other documents to put together a chronology of events, such as births, deaths, marriages, but even events as minor as purchasing curtains for a home. If they were important enough to record in their bible, then maybe I should keep notes of them. However, I could have asked and now wish I had asked so much more.
Recently, I’ve been involved in an organization dedicated to developing oral histories of some of the pioneers in the development of information technologies (IT) and industries. It’s called the Archives of IT, a charity based in the UK. Colleagues interview individuals important to the development of IT, covering not only their pioneering work, but also their lives: when and where they were born, their schools and family, to their current activities. Many interviewees are most often old, but nonetheless articulate with unique personalities and styles and fascinating life histories. This work raised my awareness of the questions I failed to ask my family.
In my childhood, I would have had to use a pen and paper, or later, maybe a reel-to-reel tape recorder to capture their stories. (I was the first person in my home to buy a tape recorder.) Today, a smart phone or any audio and video camera would be easily available and useful in recording an interview with a grandparent or parent. If your child was interested in the idea, you could put together a set of questions they could ask. It should be quite simple or as detailed as the child or you wanted it to be. It could be five minutes or quite long if you wish. From their birth to the present, even their recollections of their parents and grandparents and homes over their life. How did your parents meet? There are websites with sample questions that can be used to stimulate your own set of questions, such as here.
If I had thought of doing this as a child, I would have embraced the idea. I may even start interviewing my children and grandchildren so they might someday hear their own recollections of their lives. It’s a project that anyone might value and be able to do with off-the-shelf or out of the pocket technology. For children, it would also introduce them to valuable skills, such as in interviewing, organising and preserving their own archive.
Maybe you are young enough to ask your parents and grandparents the kinds of questions I can only wish I had asked. Instead of a few highlights from their lives that you might pick up in the course of conversations, you can gain a more complete understanding of their lives and, most importantly, in their own words.
Try it, and let me know if it is as engaging and rewarding as I imagine you’ll find it to be.