Genealogy: Oral History Interviews

I am back from my first camp counselor experience and I have to say. . . I love being an archivist! Today, I wanted to share with you my experience with and my belief in the value of oral histories used in family history gathering.

Donald Neil Gillis served as a member of the Maine State Guard from September 5, 1946 to January 20, 1948.

Donald Neil Gillis served as a member of the Maine State Guard from September 5, 1946 to January 20, 1948.

I remember my grandmother saying that every time she sat down with a tape recorder to tell her life’s story, she would just end up in tears. I inherited her personal history book and read it for the first time on a cross-country flight. It ended abruptly on  page 37, leaving my mother as a toddler! I turned the page and yelped. Everyone around me on the plane asked me what was wrong and when I explained it to them, they all felt terrible for me. “Check the end of the book! Are you sure all the rest of the pages are blank?”

My point is, asking someone to record his or her entire life or asking to interview them about an entire lifetime is overwhelming. My suggestion is to do it by topics or by mini-eras within a lifetime. One way to do that is to gather objects from say. . . high school, college, or early married life. Find books, photographs, letters, news clippings, or collectibles that can prompt memories to come forward and conversation to flow.

My Dad is standing far right with some of his barracks buddies.

My Dad is standing far right with some of his barracks buddies.

My dad had a cigar box hidden in the linen cupboard of every house we ever lived in. It had old photos and documents peeking out from under the lid. Nobody ever took it out of the linen closet to display or discuss its contents. It was like a Nancy Drew novel: The Cigar Box Mystery. I decided to conduct a photo-elicitation interview with my dad. I sorted through the more than 70 images and chose only the ones that related to his time in Korea with the Maine State Guard. Then, I organized the photos and documents into smaller piles according to topics. Here were my categories, which eventually became tracks on the CD:

01 Introduction (0:51)
02 Enlistment
03 Training and Deployment
04 Korea / Assignments
05 Letter Home
06 Photos – Locations
07 Photos – Military Equipment
08 Photos – Fellow Soldiers
09 Money
10 Photos – Korean People
11 Photos – Military Installations
12 Itinerary
13 Coming Home

Under each category, I wrote questions and potential follow-up questions. But, I have to tell you, you must be ready for the exchange to take on entirely surprising directions. Some pictures will hold completely different meanings for the interviewee than for the interviewer. Stay open. Avoid commentary and judgment.

One of the surprises. Soldiers washed dishes in trash cans filled with water and submerged water heaters.

One of the surprises. Soldiers washed dishes in trash cans filled with water and submerged water heaters.

Besides preparing in advance your array of photos, other items, and questions, my advice is to set aside more time for a visit than you think the interview will take. Devote a few days, if you can, to discussing family history, looking at unrelated photos together, and just talking. Getting the mind used to recalling the past and the heart used to sharing it are important parts of the interview process.

This itinerary was recorded by my grandmother and saved with all of my Dad's things.

This itinerary was recorded by my grandmother and saved with all of my Dad’s things.

Other documents helpful during the interview were Korean money and letters sent home.

Other documents helpful during the interview were Korean money and letters sent home.


I read an excellent article that taught me so much about photo-elicitation interviewing. I recommend it to anyone who wants to approach oral history interviewing in this way. Clark-IbáÑez, Marisol, “Framing the social world with photo-elicitation interviews” American Behavioral Scientist 47, no. 12 (August 2004): 1507-27. Since interviewing my Dad, I have also discovered some great resources from the Library of Congress. Excellent advice can be found at The American Folklife Center: Oral History Interviews and at doHistory.org’s Step-by-step Guide to Oral History.

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2 Responses to Genealogy: Oral History Interviews

  1. Shauna says:

    Great ideas! 🙂

  2. kathleen fueston says:

    I loved this post! I have had the opportunity over the years to interview and write several personal histories for family members and it has been challenging AND rewarding. I have used many of the suggestions Kari shared in this post. I chose to make a page for each year of my father’s life and add important events in history that occurred each year. This really helped my father recall important events and stories that he chose to share in his history. Doing some prep such as this and categorizing photos and other documents really can help the interview process to be very productive. Thanks for sharing Kari!

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