Over the two decades Pamela Henson has worked as a historian at the Smithsonian, she’s conducted several oral histories that have touched her heart. But it is when she recalls conversations with her older relatives that she speaks with the most admiration.
In a recorded conversation, Henson learned about the hardships her grandmother had gone through, including losing her parents before she was 5 years old, and then being sent off to work because her aunt who took her in couldn’t provide for her and her sibling. “Getting those stories down are really important for understanding her,” Henson recalls. “I have a snippet of her to pass on to the rest of my family that we wouldn't have otherwise. It's the way they talk, their tone of voice, the way they phrase things. It’s really nice to have the sound of their voice.” The conversation taught Henson about how to make a good life despite challenges that inevitably arise along the way.
Dina Gachman, a journalist and the author of So Sorry for Your Loss, a collection of essays about grief, echoes the importance of getting a record of your family’s history. She was able to teach her son about his great-grandfather thanks to an old recorded interview and says it’s a gift that will continue to be passed down for generations. “When somebody’s gone, their stories are gone, right? Why did I not ask a million questions when they were here,” she says.
“People have entire worlds contained within their lives,” says Megan Harris, a research specialist who conducts oral histories for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. “Listening, engaging, and really trying to understand someone's perspective and what they've been through is an experience like no other.” It can serve as a reminder that the person you know as a mother or an uncle is an individual with plenty of experiences you’ve never heard about. And, Harris notes, no one can predict what will happen in the future, so recording loved ones’ stories while they are still alive is crucial. “If I could have sat down and interviewed my grandmother, I would have told her that this isn't for posterity, that this is her great-great grandchildren who will want to hear just how life was,” Harris says.
TIME spoke to experts about how to prepare for and conduct these interviews in order to make them meaningful as possible. Here’s what they said.
Determining what you’ll talk about ahead of time can help guide the conversation between you and your relative. Some experts recommend preparing by doing research. “Do you have a family bible that lists when they were born? Talk to other people to see if there are any scrapbooks,” Henson suggests. Information about your family history can also be found through a simple online search. Historians say discovering a subject’s participation in clubs, activities, or organizations can often be a great point of discussion during an interview.
The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s guide on oral histories says it's helpful to provide your relative with a rundown of topics, people, or places that may be mentioned so they can jog their memory of stories they want to tell.
But don’t overthink it. Gachman doesn’t think that extensive research is a prerequisite for an insightful discussion. “Just being curious and telling them I love you and want to know as much about your life and advice and our family as possible can open [the conversation] up,” she says.
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Figure out your key questions
The focus of an oral history should be to get your family member to say their story in their own words, but it can be hard to know where to begin to get the conversation going. The Smithsonian offers the following advice for getting started: “What is the goal of your research? What are you curious about? What do you want to find out? Do you want to learn about a special celebration in your community? Document traditional customs in your family? Find out what it was like when your mother was growing up? The best way to begin is to decide on the focus of your interview.” It also offers a long list of possible questions to consider.
“I would ask about your family secrets or things that they did that were maybe unexpected,” Gachman says. “You can also ask, what would be your life advice? They're gonna have more wisdom than you think. I think when people get older, and they're not always going to share that. You kind of have to pull it out of them.”
Henson suggests imagining how different life was for your older relatives, especially when thinking about what it was like to live without modern-day technology and new modes of communication. She notes that it's especially important to get their firsthand accounts of what it was like living through historical moments. “What are the big events? Have they seen 9/11? The Kennedy assassination? How did COVID affect them?” she says.
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Photos can help facilitate conversations with your older relatives, especially if they suffer from memory loss. Historians say it may be helpful to gather albums to help guide the conversation. “If someone sits down with a photograph or a letter, and just talks about what's in that photograph, or the context of writing a letter, that can be a really wonderful, really lovely conversation,” says Harris.
In her work, Henson will point out a specific person in a photograph and ask the subject to recall a specific memory with them, or find an image that has a significant location in the background, like their home. “Photographs will often provoke stories you might not get otherwise,” she says.
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As meaningful as it can be to have a video of a loved one to show your kids and grandkids, it’s important to choose the method that will be most comfortable for your family member. Henson notes that audio is often more intimate because you can turn on the record and then ideally forget it, something that’s more difficult with a camera. “People are more relaxed so sometimes they talk more, but it's also lovely to have the video and actually see them speaking with facial expressions like the raising of the eyebrow or a little twinkle in their eyes,” Henson says. She occasionally does a mix of both video and audio to capture someone’s mannerisms, while also gathering more intimate stories.
Understand also that conversations might not go in the direction you were planning. Your relative might say something interesting and you want to keep asking follow-ups. “Personally, I'm always interested in the ‘How did that feel?’ question,” says Harris. “How did you react to such and such? What were you thinking?” And while using a guide of questions as a frame of reference is helpful, lean into the tales your relatives may want to share. “I will also say to [my subjects], what would you like to talk about?” Henson says. “What stories would you like to leave as a future?”
Regardless of your approach, don’t put it off, Gachman says. “If you have an inclination to do it, and you're feeling nervous about it, I would just really push yourself to do it.”
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