October 1st is designated the “International Day of Older Persons” by the United Nations. On this day of observance, raising awareness and actions to address the development, rights, and protection of the elderly form part of the global discussions. It is a day to acknowledge the dedication and contributions of older persons to their families and their communities. The actions and accomplishments of our older relatives form the foundation of our family’s traditions and culture.
Listening to the voices and perspectives of older persons can bring unexpected discoveries and insights into our past. Recording your family’s oral history is a great way to preserve and honour the stories of your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other elders of your family. October is also Family History Month and capturing your family’s stories and traditions is an important and worthwhile way to stay connected with your relatives, past, present, and future.
Your family history may include topics such as:
- Life experiences- maybe your aji or aja, granny or grandpa, nani or nana, tante, aunt or uncle lived through World War II or a previous pandemic; experienced trains in Trinidad; worked on a plantation; took part in the Black Power Movement; was involved in the 1990 Coup; contributed to our rich musical culture; was a devoted masquerader of Carnivals long ago and so forth.
- Family secrets or stories told and retold at family gatherings.
- Community Changes–maybe your agi or aja is responsible for the construction of community facilities or has lived through significant changes within the community.
- Rituals and Traditions
- Herbal “Bush” remedies.
Regardless of the subject, the goal of your oral history interview should be to actively participate (through listening and engaging) in the capturing and preservation of your elder’s living testimony of first-hand experiences and family genealogy.
Whether in person, by phone call or video conversation, here are 7 tips from the Heritage Library Division for recording the stories of your elderly relatives:
Tip # 1- Select a topic or theme and do your background research
After selecting a topic, you may want to do some additional research to help formulate your questions. This may require going through family photographs, documents, scrapbooks, talking to family members, online research, or a quick visit to the library to search the newspaper archives, books, or magazines on the topic. The library is always a great place to start your research if you are ever unsure of what you’re looking for.
Tip # 2 - Prepare your Questions
Now that you have done your research, it’s time to tailor your questions to highlight those unique lived experiences.
Think of your interview as telling a story. You will want to start with some light questions that will allow your interview to flow in chronological order until it concludes.
When doing oral history, there are two types of questions you will ask. These are open-ended and closed-ended questions. Open-ended questions will encourage the interviewee to provide details. Ask them how they felt about a particular event. This sensory question can help bring a well-balanced description of times and situations unknown to many.
There are some key questions you will also want to include that will help build your family’s oral memoir. This can include the date of birth, names of parents’, grandparents’, and siblings amongst other questions. You will also want to ask questions about early life experiences (Where did they live? / What school did they attend? / Work experiences, etc.).
Note that your questions are a guide and through active participation in the interview, be prepared to ask follow-up questions based on the responses given.
Tip #3 – Prepare your interviewee
Meet or talk with your interviewee before the recording to help them prepare mentally for the interview. Let them review the questions and consider having photographs or any objects during the interview to assist with memory recall.
Tip #4 - Select your location
Find a comfortable, quiet space to conduct your interview. Since there is a level of familiarity, find a location that you know will encourage dialogue. This may be a favourite chair or room within the home. Your choice of location should assist in setting the right mood, ensuring your recording is clear and eliminates distractions.
Tip # 5 – Choose your equipment
The quality of images captured on most smartphones today is like that of a DSLR camera. Whether you decide to capture audio or video, your phone may be a great and economical option.
Source: “For Schools-Equipment - Oral History Society.” Oral History Society - Everybody's Story Matters, 7 Oct. 2020, https://www.ohs.org.uk/equipment-guide-for-schools/.
Tip #6 Record your interview
At the beginning of the interview, state your name, the date of recording and introduce your family member. You can also state why you are conducting the interview. The information captured here will form part of your historical record. Once this is completed, begin asking your questions. Remember your interview should take the form of a conversation, don’t worry too much about sticking to the questions but more about listening and engaging in open conversation. Since you will be interviewing an elderly person, be mindful of the duration of your interview (no more than 1hr). Be sure to take breaks and pay attention to both verbal and nonverbal signs of fatigue or distress. Also, depending on your topic you may want to do a series of short interviews.
Tip #7 – Backup your recordings
Now that you’ve completed your recording, it’s time to consider how you will save this for future generations. There are many options to choose from, this includes but is not limited to local storage media (external hard drive, flash drive, memory card) and cloud storage (Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Dropbox). We recommend using at least three mediums to save your recordings and creating an interview transcript (written / printed text of your recordings).
Our family stories are as unique as our families themselves. You can make sure these stories are remembered for years to come and can be discovered by future generations. By recording the stories of your elders, you may even discover something new about your family. Don’t wait to capture your family’s oral history!
To discover more, follow the Heritage Library Division on Facebook @NALISHLDTT or email email@example.com.
Authors: Heritage Library Division, Ms. Danielle Fraser (Library Conservator) and Ms. Jancie Regis (Librarian I)
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