Tips for Recording Your Family History

Has someone in your family led an interesting life? You can help them tell their story. Lee Sullivan Berry, the Institute’s curator of oral histories, explains how.

By Lee Sullivan Berry | November 28, 2016
Lee Berry with Ambler interviewee Victor Romano.

Lee Berry with Ambler interviewee Victor Romano.

There’s an old saying: “The shoemaker’s children always go barefoot.” Lately I’ve been worrying that it could accurately (if less elegantly) be restated: “The oral historian’s grandparents always go uninterviewed.”

Oral history is a methodology for conducting historical research by interviewing people who participated in a historical event or an era under study. Although oral history dates back to the 5th century BCE when Athenian historian Thucydides interviewed eyewitnesses for his history of the Peloponnesian War, the modern rebirth of oral history had to await the invention of portable recording devices. In the late 1940s, historian and journalist Allan Nevins seized on the opportunity presented by newly available wire recorders to begin recording in-depth interviews with prominent businessmen and political leaders. His work formed the foundation of the first academic oral history program in the United States, at Columbia University. Today, regional, national, and international professional organizations sponsor conferences and promulgate standards for the practice of oral history.

Here at the Science History Institute’s Center for Oral History, we’ve been conducting oral history interviews with scientists, researchers, business leaders, and community members for more than 30 years. We have staff who are trained in interviewing, and who follow written guidelines and procedures for conducting pre-interview research and for editing the transcripts of completed interviews. These completed interviews end up as bound volumes on the shelves in our library here in Philadelphia and as PDFs and digital audio files available to interested researchers through our website.

I’ve been conducting oral histories for more than 15 years, and nowadays I find my biggest challenge is trying not to let family history slip away while I’m off interviewing other people for my job. Maybe—like me—you have a relative who served during World War II. Maybe your parents started a business that became a local institution, or your great-aunt took part in the civil rights movement, or your grandparents came to their community as immigrants from another country. Don’t wait to capture their stories!

  • Get yourself a digital audio recorder. (In a pinch you can even use a recording app on your iOS or Android device). Here are some recorders I like, by Tascam and Zoom.
  • Make a plan. Here are some helpful resources to help you think through how you might conduct your interview.
  • Schedule a time to sit down for a few hours, maybe over a couple of sessions, and record your interviewee’s recollections.
  • Transcribe your interview. You can hire a transcriptionist or do it yourself using software like Express Scribe.
  • Donate your interview. If your interviewee is willing to sign a release form, you might find that a local historical society or a project like the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project or the New Americans Museum would welcome the donation of your interview.

One of my favorite things about oral history is that it allows historians to glimpse the past, not just through the eyes of powerful elites whose stories always seem to fill our history textbooks, but through the lived experiences of everyday people. Preserve the stories that are important to you; discover something new about the people you’ve known all your life.