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Oral history interviewing of older family members is an excellent place to start looking into one’s own family history. From older family members, you can learn a good deal about the family tree, what various members of the family tree were like, where people lived and why they moved or stayed put, what their lives were like, and so forth. Younger family historians often start with interviews rather than electronic data such as census records, since interviews can be so highly informative. Add to that, older people in the family often feel honored when younger family members want to hear their stories – unless their stories are extraordinarily painful or laced with shame, in which case they may prefer to leave the past in the past.
Before plunging into family history interviews, I recommend doing some background planning first. There are heaps of guides available. One of the most useful is the Smithsonian Oral History Interview Guide, which I learned about in a conversation with a colleague who was using it with students and commented to me that it had opened up possibilities he hadn't considered before. This guide, which you can download as a PDF file, begins by discussing the value of interviewing “bearers of tradition” who are often but not always older than you. The guide walks you through the entire process of an interview, beginning with planning the purpose of your interview, figuring out equipment you might need, and co-planning logistics of the interview with the interviewee. The guide then provides helpful considerations when starting the interview and making it go well, then what to do after the interview. Following that are suggested questions you can ask about family folklore and history, local history and community life, and cultural traditions and occupational skills. The guide concludes with excellent suggestions for how you might share what you learned, such as creating a family exhibition.
(Another guide that is useful and, although perhaps less extensive, covers much the same territory is Judith Moyer’s Step by Step Guide for Doing Oral History.)
You may not need to look further for potential questions to ask, but lists of possible questions are plentiful. For example, Kimberly Powell posts 50 questions for family history interviews. The Center for Oral History Research at UCLA offers a very extensive list of possible questions, classified by stages of life of the interviewee. For younger family historians, or anyone who may find long lists of potential questions overwhelming, Family Tree Magazine suggests 20 questions.
It is important to pay attention to the ethnic, racial, and/or immigration background of who you plan to interview. Char McCargo Bah provides very helpful considerations when interviewing African Americans, differentiating among elderly rural, elderly educated, and non-elderly. For example, she points out that elderly rural African Americans hold taboos about what can be spoken about with whom, such as who it is proper and who it is improper to discuss intimate relationships with. She also offers useful advice about how to set up and conduct the interview in a way that will be respectful of different communities of African Americans.
Kimberly Powell offers considerations for planning interviews with Hispanic family members (given the huge diversity in who counts as Hispanic in the U.S). James Sobredo, who teaches Ethnic Studies at California State University, Sacramento prepared a guide for interviewing Asian immigrants. The Minnesota Historical Society posts a rich collection of oral history interviews with recent immigrants and refugees. While the material in this collection is oriented more toward teaching about immigration than conducting oral history interviews, the interviews themselves still can be helpful for thinking through what to ask and how, especially with respect to difficult life issues that immigrants and refugees have had to face.
Older members of Jewish families may be holocaust survivors, or children of holocaust survivors, which has implications for oral family history interviews. Jewish Gen, an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, suggests 83 possible questions to ask an older Jewish family member. While some of these questions are pretty generic (such as what country did your mother’s ancestors come from?), questions about death and dying may help open up sensitive issues. (This site, by the way, has additional search tools tailored to Jewish families.) I also recommend Oral History Guidelines of the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has more detail about questions relating to before, during, and after the holocaust, and assistance in navigating experiences older people might have had while interviewing.
Oral histories, while immensely valuable, have limitations that family history researchers should keep in mind. Oral histories depend on memory – how accurate a person's memory is about different points in time, what people chose to talk about, highlight, remain silent about, or have simply forgotten. Stories may be embellished upon to make them more interesting. Stories handed down through generations may well be changed or embellished in the process. It is important to triangulate as much as possible with other sources – just as you would for any other source such as newspaper articles or even census data, which has inaccuracies. For example, I was able to more or less verify a story an older cousin told me about an ancestor's experiences in Vicksburg, Mississippi during the Civil War by reading a historical account in which I learned that the gist of the story was probably accurate, although some of the details (such as who said what) were embellishment.
It is also important to be aware that family oral histories may well not be situated in a very full a historical context. For example, stories my mother told me about her father buying and selling property didn't refer to the fact that banks and lending institutions facilitated such transactions for white families but not for African American families. Not thinking to add this part of the story supported the narrative of an ancestor working his way up the ladder of success through hard work, a narrative that leaves out how the rules for who could work one's way up the ladder were skewed. Doing family oral history can contribute to critical family history, but isn't necessarily critical by itself.
Researchers who want to learn more about oral history should check out the Oral History Association and the International Oral History Association.