Gathering your family stories is a different kind of research. They are rarely found in books, in libraries, or online. Genealogical records can only hint at the rich truths in the lives our ancestors have lived. This is just another reason why we, who live now, are so fortunate. Even though much may never be known, we can leave a far more detailed record of what we do know for our descendants.
Stories are always the greatest challenge to acquire, as are all rare and valuable treasures. This is because they are stored in human memory, and communicated in the context of a relationship. Memories, and relationships, can be faulty and limited. Moreover, many family historians use a hit-or-miss approach to gathering these stories. If they do not feel confident, they are less likely to preserve and publish the stories they do know.
I often hear miraculous tales about people who chanced on a fantastic family story, entirely by coincidence. What joy they feel as they retell that odd tale! Already, though, there is a chance of details slipping away, lost between successive tellers. All the more reason to preserve and publish family stories, while they are available and fresh.
The obvious, common obstacles are time, distance, and simply knowing what to do. (I’ll save dealing with recalcitrant relatives for a whole other article.) Assuming you are willing to give some time to your family history, prioritize your story gathering with my favorite adage “living things first”. Facts already preserved in a book may wait, but 85-year old Aunt Ida may not be around that much longer. Make a list of all the living people who are repositories of family knowledge, and go after them!
But the distance is the problem, you say? No worries. Telephone conversations can be recorded. There is even video chat, if your interview would go better face-to-face, and you can often find some young person on the far end to facilitate the technology. Recording truly is the way to go. It simply is too much to ask someone else to write on your behalf. It never seems to get done, and you can alienate your subject when you ask for the impossible.
Instead, make a list of what you want most from each individual, and charm their stories from them. How? If you can, visit in person and bring a small, thoughtful gift related to your family history. Come prepared to ask just a few questions (and hope to come back later with more.) Start with facts that aren’t threatening, just reestablishing the public record. Ask your subject what he or she thinks is important to be preserved, before sharing what you think is important. You may elicit more treasures simply by listening without revealing a detailed agenda. Don’t stand in the way of the stories by interacting too much, or you will wind up with a recording of yourself. Encourage monologues, and nod a lot.
Let’s assume you visit a number of relatives, and you’ve recorded all those sessions. What now? You must separate the wheat from the chaff. I use an excellent audio editing program you can download free, Audacity. Keep the originals, and listen to a copy, erasing the chitchat and preserving the history. Then it’s just a matter of sending your audio to a transcriptionist, and voilà! You have not-so-instant written family stories for your book. It really is easier than you think.
We’re at the Salt Lake Family History Expo at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy, Utah this weekend. Come by and see us to learn more.