How to Write Your Family History

I was sitting at my Nana and Papa’s house one day and they were telling me stories like usual, but something changed. I wanted to know more about the people in these stories because they had passed away before I was born. At the time, I was a graduate student studying history so I thought to myself, “Could I take the skills I use to do my thesis research and apply them to my own family’s history?” The answer is… yes, absolutely yes! I was shocked by how much information came up on my first search.

Hey there, friend! Welcome back to another article! Today we are talking about how to write your personal family history. I LOVE this topic because this is something that I have done for my family over the past year. There has never been a better time to undertake this kind of a project with so many archives, libraries, and repositories making their collections digitally available online! This article will give you some ideas of places to look for sources, practical steps for capturing audio/video from elderly family members, and how to compile it all into one single file. Let’s get started! 

Places to Look for Sources

There are many different places to find sources concerning your family history. There are free and subscription services that you can utilize. For my personal family history project, I used the following sources: Ancestry (not affiliated), (not affiliated), Find a Grave (not affiliated), Chronicling America (not affiliated), my State Historical Society, local newspapers, oral histories, old photo albums, general history textbooks, and more. 

Here are some ideas of the collections you can look through: Federal Census Records, State Census Records, Military Records, School Records, Marriage Records, Birth Records, Death Records, Land Records, Newspapers, and more!

Be patient when digging for sources, sometimes it can take time, but it is so rewarding. One evening, I found a picture of one of the great grandparents many generations back in my family and my Papa loved seeing the picture. Just keep digging! 

For more information on finding primary sources see: The Best Places to Find Digitized Primary Sources and Where to Find Public Domain Sources for Your Next Project 

Practical Steps for Capturing Audio/Video Interviews

After you have consulted the documentary evidence about your family history, you can begin to capture oral histories of people in your family. I recommend doing the background research first so you can ask relevant questions to the things your interviewees are talking about.

You can either go into an interview with a set of questions or you can let your family member talk about whatever they feel comfortable talking about. I have tried both methods and they both worked. Though, for a more professional interview, you will want to have questions for your interviewee. This makes the interview process much smoother. 

To capture the audio or video of your interviewee, make sure that your equipment works before the interview. Personally, I use an iPhone XR for capturing the audio/video of my interviewees. I also use a Tonor USB microphone (Amazon) plugged to my computer to capture an additional audio file. I like to have both options in case one didn’t work. I connect the microphone to the Garage Band software on my computer and record a narration track! The audio is always crisp and clear. (This is not affiliated with Amazon).

Additionally, I like to use a tripod when recording a video file so that the camera isn’t shaky. If you don’t have a tripod try stacking books or something to create a flat surface to place the camera on. Personally, I use a smartphone tripod from Amazon. (This is not affiliated with Amazon).

Make sure to thank your interviewees for their time and willingness to share their stories for the future generations of your family. 

For more information on oral histories see: How to Conduct an Oral History 

How to Compile Your Family History into 1 File

Once you have compiled all of the information, you can put it in a single file. Personally, I chose to write mini-biographies of my family members using the documents, newspaper articles, census records, and military service records I found. 

I chose to leave the oral history videos and interviews separate from the written document. Each oral history has an individual index with key words and time stamps that act as a Finding Aid. 

Next, I took all of the pieces and put them on a single USB flash drive. (i.e. mini-biographies, photos, audio files, video files, index, and finding aids) Having all of the information in one place makes it easy to share and pass to the next generation. 

Bonus Tip: Make sure to keep the files updated as technology changes or there’s a risk that you could lose some files. (i.e. update the audio and video files) 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope this article was helpful in getting you started on your journey to writing your family’s history. Writing a family history is so valuable and you get to learn a lot about where you came from. Happy hunting!

I’ll talk to ya soon! 🙂 

How to Conduct an Oral History

Hey there, friend! Today we are talking about oral history. What is oral history? How do I do oral history? Are oral histories valid sources? These are just a few of the topics we’ll cover! 

I didn’t actually study oral history while in school, I was fortunate to land an oral history internship position the fall after I completed my master’s degree. I got to work remotely with the oral historian at a museum and learned so much. 

The book that was most helpful for me to learn the oral history process was Donald A. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. This book was loaded with lots of information and was an easy read. So check that book out if you need a more in depth explanation! I have done my best to sum up the main points and answer a few common questions that people ask me about oral histories. So… let’s get started! 

Topics Covered in this article:

  • What is an oral history?
  • Are oral histories important?
  • Are oral histories valid sources?
  • How do I conduct an oral history interview?
  • What kind of equipment/apps will I need?
  • Is there paperwork involved?
  • How do I record my family history?

What is oral history?

Oral history is the passing down of stories and events through telling stories. Oral history has been around for as long as anyone can remember. It was the original way to keep the past alive for future generations. 

Oral history involves a person telling their story and they are often referred to as the narrator. The narrator can talk about their own life, an event they lived through, or something they remember happening in their lifetime. Oral histories are unique because they place so much emphasis on a single person’s lived experience. 

Are oral histories important?

Yes. Oral histories are extremely important. Oral histories allow people to document their lived experience which adds a valuable point of view to the narrative of history. 

Oral histories can also be useful in documenting minority communities which have typically been left outside of traditional historical historic narratives. There are many amazing oral history projects across the United States which are capturing the voices of overlooked communities. These projects are crucial for telling an inclusive history that explains ALL sides of the story. 

Are oral histories valid sources?

Yes. I believe that oral histories are valid sources, but there are many other scholars out there who will say otherwise. Many people have issues with oral histories as primary sources because they argue that they’re told from only one person’s point of view. They argue that there could be subtle nuances between stories. 

I believe that oral histories are like any other source that you use for a project. The sources need to be double checked and cross-referenced. Oral histories are crucial in telling stories. 

How do I conduct an oral history interview?

There are a few steps to collecting an oral history and doing it the correct way. 

1). First, like any other project you want to start with a central question or gap in the collections. Which communities are not included in your collection? 

2). Second, you’ll want to conduct some background research on the community or area that you want to research in. See if you can find the names of prominent people (narrators) that were active in the community and write them down (even better if you can find their contact info at this time). After doing some initial research, you can start planning your project. 

3). You’ll want to reach out to two or three people (narrators) that you found contact information for. Explain to them what you are trying to do with your project and ask them if they would be interested in taking part. If they say no, thank them for their time and move on. Hopefully, some of the people you talk to will be interested in the project. 

BONUS TIP: Make sure that you know how to use your equipment before you try to interview a narrator. Practice with your family or friends! 

Next, send them your background paperwork to fill out. The legal documents for archive storing can also be in this packet. The background packet allows the narrator to tell you what they want to talk about and allows you to ask questions if needed. 

4). Set a date and time to interview your narrator. Make sure that they are comfortable – whether the interview is in their home, a museum, or other location. These interviews can also be done remotely via the phone or zoom. I will leave a list of apps that work good for this at the end of this article. 

BONUS TIP: Make sure that the narrator does not become fatigued while you are interviewing them. If necessary, you can schedule multiple recording sessions with the same narrator. 

5). Go over the legal paperwork again on the day of the interview and make sure that the narrator is comfortable. Ask the narrator to be in a quiet place so that their audio is clear. Complete the interview and thank the narrator for their time and being willing to share their stories. 

6). Process the interviews, create indexes in a document (key-word time stamps for the interview), and input the data into the database. You can contact your local archive or museum and ask if they would like to store the original tapes in their collections. 

What kind of equipment/apps will I need?

Oral histories can be recorded on a variety of devices. The following are all programs that I have personally used and were recommended by my mentor during my internship. 

  1. Garageband on a Mac computer collects great audio, but there are some time limits so you’ll need to take that into account. 
  2. The Voice Memos app on your phone also collects really good audio. 
  3. Rev call recorder is a great app that is free for your phone. You call someone through the app and it will say that the call is being recorded. 
  4. You can record an oral history using the Zoom or Skype apps on your computer. Just make sure to save the audio and video files separately. 

BONUS TIP: If you plan to record your narrator on video you will want to make sure that you have a tripod or something steady to sit the camera on. You can find tripods for cell phones and cameras relatively cheap online. Also, make sure that you have good lighting if you record your narrator. You can find ring lights online as well to help with the lighting situation. 

Is there paperwork involved?

Yes, there is paperwork involved in collecting an oral history. You will need to have the narrator sign legal documents. Then you will need to fill out any papers that a museum or archive might need for storage purposes. 

How do I record my family history?

Oral history is a great way to collect your family history. You can sit down with your family members and allow them to tell you the stories that they want to pass down to the next generation. 

Personally, I have been able to sit down with my Nana and Papa and record several of their stories. This has been such a rewarding experience and now future generations of my family will be able to see and hear them tell their own stories. 

BONUS TIP: Recording family histories will most likely take multiple sessions so plan accordingly. 

Concluding Thoughts

For more information, you can check out the Oral History Association’s website. They have step-by-step guides on how to do oral history and where to find the paperwork. They also have a list of several repositories with significant oral history collections. 

Thank you for taking the time to learn about oral histories and how to conduct them properly. I hope that these sources will help you in your next project.

I’ll talk to ya soon! 🙂