How to Conduct a Family Oral History

How to Conduct a Family Oral History

I recently had a question pop into my head about my great-grandmother’s confectionary (a sweets and food store) that she ran a century ago in rural Idaho. Did the store have a name?? I’ve never heard anyone in the family refer to it by a name, but something must have been on the sign above the door, right?

I wanted to ask my grandmother, but she passed away in 2016. I asked my mom, but she wasn’t able to answer my question.  This made me really wish I had done an oral history with my grandmother before she died!

An oral history is a fun way to learn about family history and/ or a family member’s own place in history. You interview family members and record the interviews. It can be as casual or as formal as you want.

Learn from my regret people! If you live near older family members or are attending a family reunion soon, why not conduct some interviews?

How to Conduct a Family Oral History

Oral history

Pick a topic

What do you want to know more about? Family history? Immigration? War? Adversities and challenges? Participation in civil rights movements? My grandparents lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Though they are long gone, I would have loved to learn more about their experiences.

Do background research

Do some research on the time period, places, and/ or movements that you want to talk to Nana about. You will be able to ask more in-depth questions and get better results if you have some background knowledge first.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”A little work ahead of time will produce a better interview!” quote=”A little work ahead of time will produce a better interview!”]

For high schoolers or above, give Khan Academy a try! Start with the US or World History courses. The instructors on Khan use more kid-friendly language and can provide more historical context than Wikipedia. For elementary to middle school, try Britannica Kids first.

Plan ahead

Don’t just show up at the family reunion with your recording device and start asking people to talk. Ask to interview Grandpa or Great-Aunt Judy ahead of time. Let them know what you would like to talk to them about and how the process will work.

You will also need to write up interview questions before the actual interview. You want to start with more general questions and then get more specific. Stay away from “yes or no” questions, but choose more open-ended questions instead. Don’t share the questions with the person who will be interviewed ahead of time, though.

Looking for sample questions? Click here and scroll down to “Suggested Topics and Questions for Oral Histories.” The Center for Oral History Research at UCLA also has excellent interview questions. Click here and scroll down to “Sample Family History Outline.”

Just a note – if you are planning to share recordings of the interviews, you will need to get written permission from the person you interview!


family photos

For most family oral histories, especially if you’re starting out, a recording app on your phone or tablet will work fine. Just be sure to conduct the interview indoors and away from background noises, such as fans, busy roads, and loud appliances. All those sounds may get picked up on the recording.

Bring some old family photos and have Cousin Morty talk about the people and places involved. This is a great way to break the ice, especially if you don’t know the family member that well!

Start with more general questions and then get more specific. But be sure to let Grandma do most of the talking – just ask clarifying questions along the way.  If she gets off track, gently pull her back.

Finally, please send a hand-written thank you note after the interview!

Oral History Findings

Do something with the information you learned from the interview! A few things to decide before you get started: Will this information just be for family or will you share it with the world? Will you share the recordings or just share what you learned from the recordings?

You could create a slide or multi-media presentation for your family, archive the interviews digitally, or even create a website or blog post about the interview. The possibilities are endless!

While I can’t get my question about the family confectionary answered, I hope you can learn more about your family history!

What did you learn from a family oral history? Let me know how it goes in the comments below!

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