Record Your Family's Oral History- Before It Dies Out.




About: I live on the outskirts of Melbourne. I love the way I can just look out of my window and see gum trees, hills and bird visitors (kookaburras, magpies, rosellas, cockatoos, blue wrens and many more all visit...

If you have a grandparent or great-grandparent who loves to reminisce about “the old days”, make the most of their memories and record them for future generations before it’s too late. Unless you have perfect recall, their precious memories of your family will die out when they go.

Nowadays, oral history is not so often passed down from generation to generation, with children sitting and listen to their “elders” from early childhood on. We’re too busy with school and after-school activities, then with further education, work and interests...and we often don’t even live near, let alone with, our older generations. Life moves too fast and one day, when we stop and wonder where we came from, our elders may no longer be around.

However, we also live in an age of wonderful and reasonably cheap technology, so it’s easier than ever to record and share memories, photos etc from our family’s past.

This Instructable gives some ideas that I’ve tried out successfully with the elders in my family. I wish I had started years ago, but I’ve started now, and that’s what counts. I’ve met with such enthusiasm from family members and others I’ve spoken to that I thought I’d share my experiences.

You can use this method with your oldest family members or an elderly friend who has stories to tell; or if you are part of an organisation (school, club etc) that has been around for a while, you could record the “early days” of the organisation as told by former/older members.

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Step 1: What You Need

You will need:

a) Willing elders – don’t discount the very old, as often they think about the past a lot, and may have much clearer memories of their childhood than you do of yours!

b) Recording device – digital voice recorder, camera or mobile phone with video/audio record function; tape recorder, or even pen and paper... see Step 2; also a computer with a burner and DVDs etc to store and share the results of your project

c) Prompts – photos, questions etc- see Step 3.

Step 2: Recording Devices

You will need some method of recording; you can write or type the elders’ stories, but unless you’re really fast, it’s best to use an electronic recorder of some kind. It's also lovely to hear their voices telling their own story. You can fit hours of voice recording onto a DVD to keep and share.

Your phone or digital camera may have a voice recorder, or you can buy little digital voice recorders. Try to get one that has its own “USB” lead and connection socket so you can transfer the voice files to a computer; some are “dictaphones” that are just made to be used and recorded over, not kept.

At a pinch, you can use an old cassette recorder. You can get the files off  “non-USB” dictaphones or cassette recorders if you get a lead and use software (often free) such as Audacity, but it’s a tedious process.

You could also use a computer to record directly to, using a built-in or separate microphone.

Think about who will use the recorder- will you ask all the questions and record the answers, or will your elder (and/or others in the family or club) need to be able to use it? It's fun to get others in the family involved in the project.

I bought a little digital voice recorder from an electronics store (Dick Smith in Australia) for AU$59. I wanted one that my mother-in-law could manage, as she’s very shaky, so I took her to the store to try it out. The record button is on the side, so it’s easy for her to manage. It has plenty of storage, so will hold about 100 hours of recoding before I need to transfer the files to a computer (or I can add a micro SD card). The microphone and speaker are not wonderful but it’s easy to use and I can amplify her voice later on the computer. I could also plug in a separate microphone.

I’m also setting up my old camera for my mum, who currently has an older non-USB recorder. (I dropped my camera and broke the lens, so now it’s just a good voice recorder). She has a voice recorder on her phone, but it’s too complicated for her to remember how to access it.

If you have a digital camera which records video, it’s also really nice to have some movie recording of your elder telling their story. You may like to record an “interviewer” (e.g. a young grandchild) asking questions. This will be treasured in later years! 

Step 3: Prompts

You may find your elder has so much stored up in their head that you just need to turn the recorder on and they’ll start telling their stories spontaneously, without prompting. Bonus!

Your elder may say “my life won’t be very interesting to anyone else”.. you need to reassure them of the value of their memories.

You may want to prompt your “storyteller”  with personalised questions, such as “ do you remember the story used to tell me about....?”

If your elder’s story wanders a bit, you may need to gently interrupt at times with “placement” questions, such as “Was this when you were in Primary school?"  "Was that your father’s father?”

You may have particular questions that you are seeking answers to, about your family/organisation.

You can also select from a generic list of questions covering a wide range of topics. A friend gave me a list called “Share your life with me”... not sure where she got it from, but I’ve added to it and sorted the questions a bit. I’ve made it into a table format so that it’s easier to keep track of what’s been asked, by whom, how it’s stored etc. I’ve called it “Tell Me About Your Life”, as this is the title I instinctively kept looking for on my computer.

If you would like a copy of this list (I hope the original wasn’t copyright and I can’t attribute it unfortunately), you can download a copy of my table version from here:  1. MS Word docx version; 2. Older Word compatible version (XP or earlier);  or 3. PDF version. You can alter the Word versions to fit your project . If anyone knows the original author, please let me know.

Old family photos are an excellent prompt; contact everyone you can think of who may have access to some, and ask for a copy - a print, scan, or even a photo of the photo.

Scanner/printers are available these days for $70 or less, and they’ll scan an old photo so you can enlarge it on your computer and even improve the contrast etc. If you are using Microsoft for your photos, their Picture Manager has some good editing options-Brightness and Contrast- you can darken the midtones and increase the contrast of old, faded photos to bring out details more clearly.

Another good prompt is a friend or family member from your elder’s generation. I got my mum and my uncle together with very old, unidentified photos, and set them up with my camera recording on video mode. They reminded each other about so many things that we got really valuable “supposition” about their mother’s old photos, taken before they were born.

If your elder has trouble remembering, you may want to try using music from their era or an old perfume. These can be powerful prompts.

You may also have old family documents or old jewellery/clothes, furniture or personal items, even old crockery etc. which could be useful as prompts.

Try to encourage your elder to use detail in their story, to build up a “picture” for the listener. You may need to ask a lot of extra questions at first- “What colour was the roof? What flowers were in the garden? Did the rose smell?” etc... until they get the idea.

Remember that memories are not facts. Your elder may have told these stories so many times they’ve been polished and embellished... or they may have big gaps, have the characters/times etc confused. These are their stories, and are valuable as such (though you could use a family tree, labelled photos or documentation to help the elder with some of the structure, dates, names etc).

Note: when using personal prompts such as family photos (especially of people who are no longer with us) or favourite music, perfume etc, these can evoke strong emotions. Be sensitive to your elder’s wishes, ask before bringing up these issues, and don’t tire them out with too much at once.

Step 4: Organising Your Project

Ask around your family and use the internet to find old photos, names etc- Armed Services organisations etc;; family tree organisations such as; social networking sites such as Facebook are useful for getting in touch with relatives far and near (I’ve lately kept in touch on Facebook with cousins I rarely see, and they have sent me copies of good family photos – and vice versa. Contacts can lead to other contacts...)

If you are using photos as a prompt, make them as clear as possible with your photo software. You can show the photos to your elders on a computer, or get them printed off so they can be handled. If you print them (or if your elder has a computer), it’s useful to send or give a copy to your elder in advance of the “interview” so that they have a chance to mull them over and recall distant memories.

If you are using the list of questions, you may want to just select some and print them off in advance for your elder to look at. The whole list can be daunting- there are well over 200 questions (8 pages). Remember they’re just a prompt, not a list to be fully covered!

I’ve left a copy of the questions at my mother-in law's’s house with the sound recorder, so that any of the younger rellies who are around can ask her a question or two, or she can “ask herself” any of the questions and record her answer. They can then tick off the question on the list, and write in how it’s been recorded, by whom, etc. The link for the  list (in MSWord docx format) is here: Tell Me About Your Life- List of Questions (see Step 3-Prompts for links for older Word version or PDF version)

Plan your interview visit for a time when your elder is likely to be fresh. You may want to ring in the morning to check if they still feel “up to it”. Don’t expect to cover too much in one go- it can be very tiring. If it turns out an emotional session, check later to see if they’re OK.

Add extra info as you get it... I realised that sometimes when I follow up with a phone call to ask my mother a question about one of the topics, she'll start talking in more depth, so I keep the voice recorder near the phone. I can put the phone on speaker, and record; it's not as clear as in person but it can help me record valuable information.

Keep your recordings separate- one for each question/photo or set, and start each recording with a visual or audible “marker” to help with quick identification later. For a video, focus first on the photo or question used as a prompt. For an audio file, start each with, e.g. “Question 12- What did you do after school each day?”. Even if the elder is recording his/her own voice, ask them to start with the question or topic if they can. This way, you can easily label each file and find it again later.

Label your recordings clearly. You can use question numbers, topics, photo names, whatever you like. If using photos, you can put a digital copy of the photos in the same folder on the computer as the matching audio or video files, and label them to match. Make sure the date of recording is included somewhere (my voice recorder doesn't include the date in the file information, so I need to add the date manually).

If you want to transcribe the recordings, fine. It’s not essential, though, as you’ll have digital files with your elder’s voice preserved for posterity (as long as future technology can still “read” the files, but that’s for the future...) I do keep a Word doc with a list of the main topics/points in each recording, and the date of the recording, in the same folder as the recordings.

Organise the files in some logical order- e.g. phases in the elder’s life (see list of questions) and burn them onto a CD or DVD to share with other family members. You could also print off hard copies of the photos, a description of the project and any transcriptions you have, to include with the disc. Make sure you’ve checked with your elder and the owners of the family photos that they’re happy for you to share copies around.

Don’t be disappointed if no-one else in your family or organisation shows any interest in your project; the time may come when they are vitally interested, and your elders may no longer be around, or they may no longer be able to access/express their memories.

Finally, don’t be daunted by the size of the project. If you can get just a few “elder stories” recorded - in any format- you can be providing future generations with irreplaceable and treasured resources. Go for it!

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    28 Discussions

    If all you have are pictures and a voice recorder, you can use Microsoft's Photo Story 3 to put together a really nice presentation. My wife and I did this for my family using the photos my late uncle had. Close to 150 photos and a 20 minute show ran us about 40 hours of work, most of which was spent cleaning the pictures and learning how to use Photostory. Some of the photos were over 100 yrs old and almost gone. Love the old Acer scanner (Win98 compatible! ;) , what a workhorse) and Irfanview plus Audacity. We made DVD's and gave them to everyone for Christmas. Not a dry eye in the house after the preview. Even the cousins and uncle we don't see often called after they saw it. Family history can be a powerful thing, give it a try.

    BTW, all the software used is free.


    1 reply

    What a fantastic idea- as you say, a lot of work, but you made so many people happy with the DVDs you made - sounds well worth it.

    I was just going to label all the sound files and photos and stick them on a DVD to share but with careful editing it would be a wonderful presentation!

    This has given me something new to aim for! Thanks for sharing this idea :)


    5 years ago

    I recently started documentation of my family tree. Half heartedly I admit. My parents and grandparents are no longer with us. To add to this, both my mom's brother's passed this year. Thats a lot of history gone. My heritage dot com has been a great start and thanx to your 'ible, I now see how to proceed.

    1 reply
    John Paul HenryDagger68

    Reply 3 years ago

    Dagger68 - Hey, congratulations on starting to record your family history.

    We offer tips and educational tutorials on how to record family history on video. Take a look:

    John Paul Henry

    3 years ago

    What a great sentiment and important concept. I've done this several times, but with video equipment. With my dad, and two grandmothers. It has been some of the most valuable time spent.

    I'm a member of Making Time, which is a life historian society. It offers this service to folks for free to record their story and then the company archives the stories for their children or future generations, they it can be purchased later.

    The important part is that these stories are being saved! If you're interested in this idea, it's worth checking out:

    Lady Judy

    3 years ago

    Heyy.... I really appreciate your idea, so adorable awesome!! Love this so much!! Would you like to vote me in egg contest 2016? Thx;)) fighting for u;)


    5 years ago on Step 3

    This is such a great idea, unfortunately all of my grandparents have passed and I lamented and the time and even more now that I didn't record their stories, especially since one of my grandparents had dementia and all those stories were lost so fast. I think this is definitely something I will start, asking my parents about my grandparents and my parents childhood so I can keep it for my nephew when he is older, and for hopefully my own kids. We have so many photographs these days but often don't know the story behind them. On top of that I am completeing my Master's degree in social research so interviewing is a skill I have honed. Thank you for such a great idea.

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago on Step 3

    That's a good point about the number of photos we have these days- we certainly need to record the stories behind them (and perhaps store copies of the significant ones separately from all the day-to-day digital stuff that we accumulate).
    Thanks for your comments, and good luck with your study and your Family History recording!


    6 years ago

    This is such a great idea thanks ive been wanting to do something like this I just didn't know where to start

    1 reply

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    I'm glad it's helped to give you some ideas- all the best for your family project; the important thing is to start, even if you haven't got everything ready... you can always learn as you go, and anything recorded may be valuable in years to come :)

    For Christmas my Mom gave me a CD with a recorded audio interview she had made with my late great grandmother in 1981. I have been listening to it and it is amazing!! What stood out the most was how young my mother sounded at age 30. My great grandmother was born in 1890 so I also got to hear about her first job in a shoe factory in England at age 14 plus dating her first husband at age 16 in 1906. Extremely fascinating and really hits home.

    1 reply

    Thanks for your comments - interesting and thought-provoking!

    You've reminded me to get a move on and do some more recording of my Mum and M-i-L (both in their 90's, so I shouldn't delay...).


    Such a great idea! My grandmother is turning 100 this year and loves to talk about the old days... I will try to use this excellent guide next time I'm back home... Thanks for posting!

    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    It's my belief that having something recorded is better than not having anything whatsoever, so don't let a little lack of enthusiasm on their part stop you. They may be unsure of what will be required of them. .It may sound allot harder than it actually is. You could always just roll audio and start up a conversation (as I would normally do anyway) and let the magic happen. Another thing that is often overlooked are the family recipes that are priceless and often impossible to replicate. Keep in mind, they've prepared them so many times that they might just do some things without listing them or explaining them adequately or accurately enough to be understood by the lame man. If anything is unclear, have them explain it to you. To me a recipe isn't a recipe unless I know what makes it tick tick tick tick...DING!...Anyway, gtg; tonight's Goat Chowder night and it's time to add the eyeballs.

    1 reply

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    OMG don't forget the eyeballs! Hope you've got that recipe recorded in glorious technicolor for posterity!

    I agree that recording anything is a good start :) The old photos got my Mum going (also interview with granddaughter helped her to be less self-conscious), and the questions have really motivated my Mother-in-law. Once they got used to being recorded, they really got into it.

    That's a great idea about the recipes- not just the recipe, but the extra touches! I'm thinking maybe video of Grandma showing one of the grandkids how to cook an old favourite...

    Thanks for the thoughts!

    PuzzleddGhost Wolf

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 3

    Yes, my camera was on the gorilla tripod on the table; I leaned across to adjust the laptop screen and I must have bumped the camera or the gorillapod- didn't even notice but the gorillapod bent and over went the camera- onto the hard floor.

    My Rule#1 used to be: ALWAYS take my camera with me (has served me well) but now it's

    Rule #1: BE CAREFUL with the camera!