November 2020 Program
Using Oral History in Genealogical Research
By Jean Kilheffer Hess, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society
Oral histories are rich resources that can build family histories beyond names and dates to create a fuller picture of a family's traditions, common personality traits, values, and many other things. This interactive presentation will discuss where to look for existing oral histories and the basics of how to conduct oral history interviews.
Presenter Jean Kilheffer Hess is executive director of Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. As owner of StoryShare, LLC, an oral history interviewing and life story business, Jean has been conducting oral history interviews and assisting clients in sharing family histories for more than a decade. Jean received a Bachelor's degree from Messiah College and a Master's degree from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She lives with her husband, Gale, near Mount Joy.
This archived presentation may be watched here.
Summary of the November 4, 2020 program, “Using Oral History in Genealogical Research”
Why should you do an oral history?
Things to consider when planning or conducting an oral history interview:
1) Plan for about a two-hour session with 10 to 15 good questions. The questions should be open ended, so that the responses allow for reflection and the opportunity to talk and expand on the answer. A question that can be answered with either “yes” or “no” will not invite further discussion or follow up questions. Questions should not be “stacked” (more than one subject). It makes it difficult to answer and can overwhelm or interrupt the flow if it is difficult to decide which part of the question to respond to first.
2) Do some basic research ahead of time so that you are making the best use of your time by asking questions that you could easily find the answers to (names, dates, etc.)
3) Find a comfortable environment with a quiet space with just the two of you. Make it a space where there will not be outside distractions, noises, or other people who might attempt to monitor or intervene in the interview. Ask the question and then be quiet, allowing for pauses so that responses can be expanded before moving on to the next question. Maintain eye contact and be attentive. Do not interrupt but write down follow-up questions. Remember that this is not a social conversation – you want your interviewee to ramble.
4) It is necessary to get the consent of the interviewee in writing so that the interview was voluntary and that they are giving you permission to record, transcribe, and release the interview. Have fun with the interview and thank them for sharing. Let them know that they can see a transcription of the interview in case there are corrections that need to be made.
5) If you have no living relatives that you could interview, consider recording your own oral history. What memories or stories do you want to leave for your descendants? Oral histories can be a way to discover unknown family stories, traits, traditions, expressions, etc. By listening to an oral history, some non-genealogists might become interested in their family history. One must be aware that some stories may uncover family information that will need to be handled tactfully or discreetly.
6) For more information on oral histories, there are several websites which can be researched. Several colleges, such as the University of Kentucky, Baylor University, and Columbia University hold oral histories on a variety of subjects. Other repositories to check are the Library of Congress, Story Corps, and Veterans organizations.
Some websites are listed below: