Family gatherings are a wealth of information
November 23, 2011
by David Burton

Young and old family members typically get together for holidays between mid-November and the end of the year. That makes this the perfect time of the year to collect oral histories from elderly family members. The process doesnít require a novel, a professional DVD or strange stories.

In a practical sense there are several ways people can give the valuable gift of history to their families. With the popularity of video cameras, it is convenient to begin a family oral history with a camera and a conversation. The hardest and easiest parts of this process are the same: getting started.

Just capture the conversations in the room with a tape or video recorder as people reflect and tell stories. Or, how many times have people visited a cemetery and talked with their children or parents about deceased relatives and some of the memories of them that describe some of their characteristics? Next time, take the recorder and record the conversations.

Another excellent opportunity to develop an oral history is to record conversations while working on a family photo album. If that canít be done, just start writing on your own history or take really good notes each time you talk to a family member. As an aid I have developed "A History of Me," a 20-page guide that is full of questions that will guide a person toward preserving his or her own personal history for future generations. The same questions can be used by an interviewer trying to record another personís history. A positive aspect of using the written page is that unless the writing is allowed to fade or the paper to crumble, it is a lasting readable record; the changing technology of video cameras and/or recorders makes for obsolescence---consider the demise of 8-track tape, for instance. While they may be used to capture information now, in the future you might not be able to retrieve it.

The booklet is available for free online here (just print it out) or may be purchased for $3 from the Greene County Extension Center, 2400 S. Scenic, Springfield, MO 65807, tel: (417) 881-8909.

Burton is the civic communication specialist, University of Missouri Extension

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