I’m not sure exactly how old my great-great-uncle Saul is, but I do know he’s one of my oldest living relatives.
A few weeks ago my mom, grandma and great-aunt paid him a visit with me so I could fill in some names on the genealogy chart I’m working on. It was a quick visit, but his stories about our family’s life in rural Berkeley County (Alvin, to be exact) left me wanting to know more.
Finding out more from our relatives is not something to put off. It’s important to realize that our older family members won’t be here forever. We need to preserve these stories so our family histories don’t die along with them.
Kerry Taylor is the director of the Oral History Program at The Citadel. He said preserving these stories is important because “it gives people a way to connect their personal history to the larger suite of history.”
“You’re able to understand how large, historical forces, seemingly impersonal, have an impact on families and individuals,” he said.
Before interviewing a relative you need to prepare. Taylor recommends you figure out what technology you want to use first. Laptops and smartphones have recording capabilities, but if you want to do multiple or higher-quality recordings you may want to invest in a digital voice recorder. Simpler ones start out at around $30. My voice recorder was about $50 and stores 2 GB itself, plus I can add a micro SD card to hold more.
Jot down some notes on what you already know about the person. That way you will have some topics — like their jobs, school, military — to ask them about. With this information, you also can browse genealogy sites like ancestry.com or familysearch.org. These sites use census records that could lead you to information about other relatives.
The South Carolina Room on the second floor of the Charleston County main library also has local history and genealogy materials and resources.
“These things can be helpful to jog an interviewee’s memory,” Taylor said.
Once it’s time to do the interview, make a list of questions to ask in chronological order. This can help keep you and your relative on track. Taylor said tangents are good sometimes because they can “provide the real core” of a topic, but they can sometimes distract from the main issue.
Use your judgment on this. It can be hard to get someone to switch to another issue once they get going, so be patient and just let them talk.
Once the interview is over make sure you don’t keep this to yourself. Share with other family members (dropbox.com is a good tool for sharing media) to make it accessible to others.
You also can choose to share the interview with a local archive such as the Lowcountry Oral History Alliance (you can find them on Facebook) or the Citadel Oral History Program (citadeloralhistory.com) to preserve your recording. You can contact Kerry Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 953-4857.
So the next time your grandmother begins a long tale about her childhood, tell her to hold that thought so you can take out your recorder. Future generations will be glad you did.
Reach Jade McDuffie at 937-5560 or jmcduffie @postandcourier.com.
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