"Speak, memory": Part One

Fry 1963 Courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

“Imagine listening to an elderly relative tell of her journey to America as an immigrant, her arrival at Ellis Island, and her first job in a clothing factory. Or imagine another family member describing how he worked on the family farm, learned to read in a one-room school house, and courted his wife at church socials. Such are the opportunities available to the family historian who draws upon the method of oral history.” So begins Linda Shopes’s poignant essay “Using Oral History for a Family History Project.” As Shopes movingly points out, oral histories are among the most useful and satisfying methods of compiling family histories.

Importance of Oral History

Shopes further notes that oral histories, the information gathered from interviews and discussions, “can yield information about motives and attitudes and the ‘feeling tone’ that even the most extensive genealogical reconstruction lacks.” While genealogical research using public documents and printed sources on one’s family may provide facts and even moderate insight into the daily life of your ancestors, conducting oral history projects provides significant information that these sources might lack. Perhaps most importantly, Shopes points out that conducting oral histories can act as a means of developing or strengthening family relationships.[1]

In Presenting Oral History, Donald A. Ritchie suggests that oral history interviews can help by providing not only ‘who’ and ‘what,’ but also the ‘why.’[2] Understanding motives, beliefs, and events through the eyes of an ancestor can lead to a more expansive account and allow family historians to feel as though they were present for these moments in time.

Preparing to Conduct Interviews

Before conducting interviews with family members, it is strongly recommended that you conduct preliminary research on your subject. While Shopes recommends examining a family bible (if one is available), other good places to search include family heirlooms and other material objects as well as public records and documents.[3] Crucial to the oral history process is to place individuals within a broader context of the historical era in which they lived. It is advisable for the interviewer to spend time researching not only American history during the period you plan to discuss, but also local history of the location where the subject lived.[4]

In order to avoid gathering a disconnected series of facts, dates, and names, it is also important to determine the focus of an interview prior to meeting with the subject. This will help not only you, as the interviewer, by guiding the series of questions, but may also help the subject by allowing them to focus their memories on a certain period, event, or family member.

In preparation for the interview, developing a questionnaire is suggested, although it is not required.  A good questionnaire should include general questions which all family members would answer as well as some questions specifically written for a particular subject.

An excellent example of a useful questionnaire can be found here.


[1] Linda Shopes, “Using Oral History for a Family History Project,” in David K. Dunaway and Willa K. Baum, eds., Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira, 1996), p. 232.

[2] Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 231.

[3] Shopes, p. 233.

[4] Ibid.

Zachary Garceau

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.View all posts by Zachary Garceau