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Archive for August, 2008

I have been lecturing recently on the topic of “Oral History for the Genealogist.” When I get the opportunity, I like to ask my audience to give me their definition for “oral history.” I explain that lexicographers (dictionary compilers) generally create definitions from how the word is used in speech and writing. So, I tell the audience, they either can offer up a dictionary-like definition or give me an example of a genealogist, like themselves, engaging in “family oral history.” In social science research, this kind of definition is called an operational definition. Whether or not formally stated (such as in my little exercise), operational definitions greatly influence how we interpret our sources and our data.

I have received a variety of definitions, one which I want to discuss here. This definition is simply stated as: “Oral history is what you get from family when you ask them to tell you about your ancestors. It helps you find records.” What is interesting about this definition is the embedded assumption that family “oral history” is part of your early research, but has little additional value as your research matures into looking at written records.

I hope to correct a misconception about the “starting with family” advice given to most beginner genealogists. It’s not that I disagree with that advice. I support approaching family early in your research. However, the manner in which this advice is communicated suggests that once you have visited mom, Grandpa Jones or Aunt Mayzie—once you’ve gotten elders tell you the names and vitals of all the ancestors that they can recall—you can contentedly consign your living relatives back to holiday visits and the periodic phone call to catch up on current events. The fact that they might know more about the family genealogy than they initially provided just does not get the attention that I am convinced is warranted.

For me, this “single shot interview” advice is analogous to using a starting pistol in a race. Once the gun is fired, the runners surge forward and the race begins. The pistol is never fired again. The oral historian within me knows how false that underlying assumption is. Contemporary research in psychology argues against it. We can never tell all that we know in one session, even if “telling all” is our intent.

Moreover, many of these stories told and re-told by our relatives will sometimes take on the air of old TV reruns. So familiar, we feel that we can lip-sync the narrative as Uncle Joe describes the magic of that high school touchdown in 1957. Why would we deliberately subject ourselves to hearing him tell it again so that we can audio or video record it?

Why? Because, oral history is more than the traditions passed down through generations. Within social research it is “history told in the first person,” eyewitness accounts of history. Someday the traumas of events, such as 9/11, Katrina, the assassination of the Kennedy men and Martin Luther King will be gone from human memory. The same will be true for those more wonderful events, such as the landing on the moon, the Shoemaker-Levi crashing into Jupiter, and wedding of Charles and Diana, their latter public separation. Someday, the people, who rose to prominence as a result of those events, will be footnotes on an historical page. However, not every story will be so enduring. What was the impact on these events in the lives of your relatives? What was the impact in your own life? What were some of the events within your family that changed how you perceived your life? Those are the stories to collect for the generations to come.

I try to keep a private journal of my life, the mundane as well as the important. Recording my reactions, my thoughts about those events have produced a remarkable source for my family oral history. How did others in my family perceive those events? Collecting and recording the different perspectives help me personally, but from an historian’s perspective, they will provide future family historians, something new to study, an historical record.

Being a genealogist, I can appreciate how much better my research would be if only I could resurrect ancestors for an hour or twenty hours of conversation. You may feel the same as I do. Ask questions about when, how, and who—and why? With technology, you can give that gift to future generations, by recording the stories of the lives around you.

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