Read an Excerpt
Once upon a time, a book like The Oral History Workshop wouldn’t have been necessary. Once upon a time, when most people lived in small, tight-knit communities, with or within a stone’s throw of their families. When stories, lore and family history were essential parts of everyday life. When people spun yarns around the dinner table. When neighbors watched out for and knew everything there was to know about one another.
Nowadays, people move around for work, for better climates, for real estate deals, for fresh opportunities. Odds are pretty good that you don’t know much about where your neighbors come fromand maybe you don’t know much about where you come from either. In this modern mobile context, it makes sense that genealogy is such a popular pursuit. People are starved for information about their roots; they pay to have their DNA decoded and spend time worrying about their "identities."
But there is a more direct way, a way to mine the rich sources of information all around usjust ask.
Everyone has a story to tell. And every individual is a piece of a greater puzzlea family, a community, the wider world. This book will enable you to explore those puzzle pieces, and perhaps to come a step closer to fitting them into place.
Of course, we’re talking about people here, not puzzles. About sitting down with a loved one and asking the questions you’ve always wanted to askand a great many you haven’t thought of before. About capturing stories you've heard time and time againor stumbling into stories you've never been told. The listening process may bring you closer to those you care about, and will doubtless provide answers to questions you've had for years: "My father sold insurance for a living, but he always hinted that he'd wanted to be a doctor. He never explained why he abandoned his dream." "Elizabeth loves to tell stories about the wild times she spent traveling with her great aunt, but I’ve never known why she wasn’t closer to her parents." "I'd love to hear our eighty-five-year-old neighbor talk about what life was like in the 1930s."
Genealogy and Your Interview
A passion for many, genealogy is the study of familial and ancestral history. Even if it’s not a particular interest of yours, you’re probably familiar with the basic concept of a family tree. At its core, the quest for lineage answers the question all humans (especially four-year-olds) have been asking since time immemorial: "Where did I come from?"
For many budding genealogists, the Internet has provided a veritable trove of answers. A simple search of family names can open a portal that leads from link to link to linkwhere all kinds of information might be revealed, from records of citizenship, marriage, and employment to the names of the ports at which your ancestors disembarked. At the end, satisfied searchers may leap up from their computers in the throes of spirited "Aha!" moments"I found us on the Mayflower!" "Our name is in the history books!" or simply, "I wouldn't be here were it not for all of this." But the nature of the pursuit itself can be isolating; and the results, though gratifying and sometimes impressive, can seem abstract.
Personal history interviews go beyond the family tree, revealing what the ships' passenger lists, census data, and marriage certificates cannot: how your great aunt felt as she scrimped and saved to emigrate to America, what kept her going during the times of struggle, what shaped her decisions. And they enhance and complement that family tree as well, sometimes removing untold degrees of separation between the branches: A person’s memories about his grandparents or even great-grandparents will put you in touch with events that span centuries. Now that’s an "Aha!" moment.
What is Oral History?
"Oral history" refers to the practice of soliciting and recording spoken storiesstories that sometimes amount to richly detailed and emotional accounts of individual lives.
Of course, technically, oral history has been around for a long, long time. Spoken word has always been a means by which people have passed along knowledgewithin families, within tribes, within religions, within neighborhoods. But both the term and the professional practice evolved in response to traditional, written history, a field which has tended towards a hierarchical view of things. Even if your aim is to grasp the big picture, you can’t fully understand the actions of a Napoleon without also knowing what life was like for his soldiers; and those men probably didn’t have biographers, nor were their stories told in the pages of newspapershence the need for a method that would help gather information about previously under-recorded groups.
Nowadays, the two approaches intermingle: Historians use oral histories to complement and contextualize what they glean from written documentaries like data-rich (but emotionally neutral) official records. Oral history gives voice to the data.
"Oral history" may or may not accurately describe what you do when you sit down to do your interview. Your interest may be casual or personal; but, like photography, oral history is a tool that can be used to create anything from casual snapshots to epic masterpieces.