Preserve Your Family History with Audio Recordings

Meredith Sullin's most treasured possession isn't a car or a piece of jewelry; it's an interview she recorded with her 88-year-old grandfather, Eugene. 

When asked about his favorite memories, he recounted taking her to the Opryland amusement park when she was just a toddler. He won his granddaughter -- now a 26-year-old nursing student in Nashville -- enough stuffed animals to fill the backseat of the car. 

"I never knew he had worked so hard to win them all!" says Sullins. "The love behind that was really special." She is glad her future children will hear their great-grandfather's advice through his voice, now immortalized on tape.

Recording your family's oral history not only creates a powerful heritage, it also draws you closer to the most important people in your life. 

"My grandfather has always been quiet, but he felt like this was something special -- a real interview -- and it gave him the liberty to open up," Sullins says. 

She talked with him for StoryCorps, a nonprofit that records the stories of ordinary people in booths around the country, archives them in the Library of Congress, and airs them weekly on National Public Radio. 

Its National Day of Listening encourages those who can't make it to an official booth (check storycorps.org for locations) to conduct their own interviews on the day after Thanksgiving. (See more details at nationaldayoflistening.org.) 

So instead of lounging around in a turkey-induced torpor, round up your relatives and ask them everything you've ever wanted to know. 

"This is an opportunity to have a meaningful face-to-face conversation that won't melt away in two seconds. It creates a legacy," says Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps. "These aren't the kinds of conversations that happen every day at the dinner table."

Asking probing personal questions can seem daunting, but Isay's most important rule is this: Don't put it off. It's the only way to preserve fascinating everyday details -- the iceman's deliveries, an era's courtship rituals -- for generations to come. 

"It's the stories that we find all around us that are important, that resonate," he says. That's why you should pick someone whose life you're curious about and make a date to sit down with him or her. 

Set aside at least 40 minutes and prepare a few questions in advance. (Get help from the "great questions list" at storycorps.org, which even breaks them down into tougher topics, like "illness" and "war.")

Open-ended inquiries, such as "Tell me about your childhood," work best. "You want to let them ramble on instead of getting quick one-word answers," says Rina Benmayor, a professor of oral history at California State University Monterey Bay and president of the Oral History Association. 

You can either work chronologically, starting with someone's earliest memories, or begin with a pivotal event. To break the ice with someone who's shy, bring memory-triggering objects like old photos or a childhood toy.

And expect emotions. People are likely to laugh, get embarrassed or angry, and yes, shed a few tears. To help your grandmother through a tough spot in a story, sit quietly, touch her hand or shoulder, and wait for her to gather her thoughts and continue. And unless asked, never turn off the recorder -- you risk missing an important moment.

All you need is a quiet room and some kind of recording equipment. (Digital recorders create MP3 files that are easy to upload and share electronically.) Then just begin. It's a simple act that gives your family's ephemeral memories a loving permanence.

How to Get the Best Sound Recording

  • Avoid kitchens, which tend to have buzzing appliances and hard surfaces that reflect noise.
  • Test your equipment well before starting the interview, says Evan Roberts of Audio Heirlooms (audioheirlooms.com), which creates professional archival-quality recordings. And use headphones (earbuds will do) to monitor the sound as you go.
  • Put the recorder on a flat surface between you and your interviewee. Try not to touch or move it.
  • First, record the date and full names and relation of both interviewer and interviewee.

For more ways to preserve your family history, check out these instructions for memorykeeping crafts


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