How to Collect Oral History in Your Genealogy Research

Published by Genealogy-Research on

By Lisa Lisson

“No one is interested in my story.”  — “Me? I was just a housewife.” — “Our family did not do anything special.” — “Our family never had much.”

These are some of the responses I received when I began asking my grandmother (at the time in her late 80s) about her life and family history.

So, I got a little sneaky. I pulled out the family photographs and asked her help in identifying the individuals.

The stories began to flow. Stories about attending school in a one room schoolhouse. Stories about her grandfather, overseer of the plantation. Stories about when she saw her first airplane. Stories about how she met my grandfather. Stories about Christmases at her grandparents’ house. Stories about the family’s music and dancing.

I couldn’t record her stories fast enough.

Over the years before her death at the age of 96, I interviewed my grandmother a number of times. I interviewed her at the Thanksgiving table. I interviewed her over the telephone. I interviewed her in her assisted living apartment. The “interviews” were not necessarily formal. In fact, for the most part, my oral history interviews with her were quite informal. Other times, our interviews were more focused – where I asked about specific people and events. Each time we both left knowing each other a little bit better.

My grandmother’s initial reluctance to talk about herself and her story is not unique. I received many similar responses from older family members I wanted to interview. This is something I hear from other researchers, too.

Despite the initial resistance, all of the interviewees I have contacted over the years really did want to share their stories. Their reluctance came from a fear that no one would be interested in their stories or their family’s history.

But once they got over their initial hesitation?

Oh my…. the stories they shared!

Do You Use Oral History in Your Genealogy Research?

As genealogists we are remiss if we do not gather our family’s oral history when we can. Oral history will give you facts about your family that cannot be found in formal records. For example, oral history told the story of why a great grandfather did not appear in the 1920 census. The casual researcher would have assumed he died when he was very much alive and working on a road crew in a neighboring state. This was how he, a farmer, earned extra money in the off-season of farming.

Oral history provided the nickname Cas (pronounced with a short “a” as in cat) of a Haley great-great grandfather that later led to confirming his identity as Stephen Caswell Haley and furthering the Haley family two more generations back.

Seeking oral history led to re-connecting with “old” cousins and a subsequent reunion between these cousins….the first in over sixty years.

How Do You Start Collecting Your Family’s Oral History?

One of the easiest ways to start collecting information from your family’s oral history is through the use of photographs. Photographs are conversation starters. Relatives who are reluctant to talk about themselves are often happy to share stories about an event or individual(s) a photograph is depicting. At your next family gathering pull that photo album off the shelf. Pull that box of photographs of the closet.

Pick a photograph and begin by asking your relatives the questions below.

Questions to Begin Uncovering Your Family’s Oral History

  1. Who are the individuals in the photograph? What is their relationship to each other?
  2. Why was the photograph taken? What occasion is the photograph depicting?
  3. Where was the photograph taken?

Tip: Let the conversation flow naturally as you talk with your relatives about your family’s photographs. You will uncover stories and family facts you did not even know to ask about!

As your relatives become more comfortable sharing their family’s history, they will become more comfortable sharing about themselves and their own perspectives of family events, too. I have collected many family stories and facts used in my genealogy research by using this technique.

Perhaps it is cliché to say, “Everyone has a story.” Perhaps this statement became cliché because it is true. Everyone does have a story. Everyone has a unique perspective on the family stories. The benefits of searching out these stories will further your genealogy research beyond just names and dates.

Just ask….and then listen.


Before it is too late.

About Lisa:

Lisa Lisson is a genealogist, blogger and Etsy-preneur who writes about her never-ending pursuit of ancestors, the “how” of genealogy research and the importance of sharing genealogy research with our families. Specializing in North Carolina and southern Virginia research, she also provides genealogical research services to clients. In researching her own family history, Lisa discovered a passion for oral history and its role in genealogy research. When not tracking ancestors through the records, Lisa enjoys spending time with her husband and two “almost” grown children.


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