Oral History

A year and a half ago I sat down with my father and started recording an oral history. We spoke for over an hour and covered topics from his childhood through High School. It was a great conversation and I hope to be able to continue these interviews with family members in order to have an extensive resource of our heritage.

Why oral history?

I really enjoy writing a journal, which I keep in Day One. As I have become more proficient and persistent in doing so, I have come to think of it as one of the most important things I can do in life. What remains for our descendants are memories we make together, momentos, and, occasionally, personal records. The benefits are not simply for my children, but for myself as well. I love to read old entries and reflect on how I felt at important, and not so important, events in my life. Journaling has helped me grow as a person as I have seen how far I’ve come in certain ways, or how, on the other hand, I want to get back to things I may have abandoned. Records of our lives are important, but they take time, effort, and patience to build.

Many of the people close to us have experiences and insights that are simply not shared. They go unsaid because people are busy, or don’t see their own life as very unique or compelling, or a myriad of other reasons. If you can get a cherished family member or friend to sit down and talk about their life, they will love the experience, and you for caring enough about them to ask. You will learn things about them you never knew and they will have a chance to reflect on their lives in ways they probably haven’t in a long time. The topics will wander and vary, from profound to mundane, but you will find yourself caring tremendously about what kind of food they ate when they grew up, how much time they spent with their relatives, and what their first jobs were. The foundations of character you respect will come into sharp relief. Recording an oral history with someone you care about will bring you closer and cast your own life in a richer context.

How to do it

If this sounds like a worthwhile pursuit to you, let me share some tips:

  1. Create a relaxed setting. Regardless of the logistical things discussed below, make sure you do not detract from a relaxed, natural conversation.
  2. Write a handful of things you want to ask about, but keep it limited. The conversation should flow on its own, but a couple notes will help you feel confident that you didn’t miss anything too important.
  3. Choose your medium. I think video is fantastic, but because of technical issues it may not be practicle for every situation. You can record audio easily with a smart phone or inexpensive audio recorder.
  4. Choose a presentation and storage strategy. Finding a private way to share the oral history with family members will spread the rewarding experience to them as well. Be sure to also save digital files consciously, and back them up redundantly. Don’t let your hard work get erased or lost!

Video Tips

If you’re choosing to use video here are my recommendations:

  1. Use a camcorder. Digital SLRs shoot great video and are wonderful for beautiful, “cinematic” videography, but they typically have a clip limit of 8–10 minutes. This means you have to stop the conversation frequently to start another video. Camcorders on the other hand go as long as there’s space on the SD card. You can find camcorders for $200–500 at places like Costco and Best Buy that are better than the one I paid 2–3 times that for a few years ago.
  2. Use a tripod. This should go without saying, but handholding these types of videos is crazy. Plus, you can frame the subject much better from a tripod than setting a camera on makeshift surfaces.
  3. Use a lot of light, but avoid backlight. Having a well lit subject will make your video pleasant to watch, just don’t put them right in front of a window in daylight, because they will look like they’re talking to you right from heaven.
  4. You might want to record audio separately. Mics on video cameras are typically terrible. When you know what software you will be using to output the video look up how to do audio syncing with it on YouTube. If that process doesn’t seem too overwhelming, try recording audio separately with a decent mic and then syncing it with the video in post-production. You will always have the video camera mic to fall back on.
  5. Do a couple test takes with someone else sitting in for the subject. This way you can make sure everything is working before you begin.
  6. Output the video in the best quality/resolution possible with your equipment. It will take a long time and bog down most computers for hours, but the advance of visual fidelity is relentless in the video world and you’ll be happy you didn’t skimp a couple years from now.
  7. Backup, backup, backup. This is so important, but almost nobody does it. Professional videographers have insane backup systems that are impractical for most people; so I will point you to a series of articles by The Sweet Setup about backing up a Mac that should get you started. Be sure to read all the links from this article, as they are very descriptive, helpful, and persuasive.
  8. Share with family members. I do this using Vimeo. You can set videos to private, allowing people to access them via password. I upload the video and then share the link and password with my family. You can also do this on YouTube, but I prefer Vimeo because you can offer the video file for download.

Hopefully these recommendations will help you realize how worthwhile and doable oral histories are. I encourage you to try it out, you will be surprised at what you learn and how much you enjoy the process.