… but family stories don’t have to. Use technology to preserve family memories now. Here’s how.

It’s just a small onyx brooch, likely with very little monetary value. But that brooch, with its delicate gold floral design, was found alongside a creek bed by my great-grandmother when she was moving with her family from North Carolina to Arkansas in a covered wagon.

What did my great-grandmother think when she found it? For that matter, how did she feel about her family moving to an unfamiliar place? Traveling in a covered wagon—what was that like, and what adventures did she have along the way? All these questions beg answers that I will never have, since she is no longer alive.

Every family has such stories—colorful accounts and unique moments—that get lost as memories fade, people pass away, and mementos are discarded. More and more, people choose to communicate through emails, texts, tweets, and Facebook posts instead of sitting down with older relatives and simply listening to them talk.

Yet it’s so easy to listen to family stories while at the same time recording them to create timeless keepsakes. With a little effort and some easy-to-use, affordable equipment, you can capture family history and preserve memories. Here’s how.

Recruit Your Storytellers

Woman talking to her older mother

First, of course, your relatives must be on board and willing to share their experiences. “My life has been ordinary. Who would be interested in that?” an older relative might say. Others may be shy about being recorded. “I’m not comfortable in front of a video camera,” you might hear. You could reply, “I’ll make an audio recording of you, then.” Be creative. You could share a story from your own life, something your family didn’t know, and then suggest that storytelling is a great way to get to know each other better.

Choose Your Equipment

Once interviewees have said yes, gather some basic equipment, including a recording device—a video camera, a digital voice recorder, a tape recorder, or even a smartphone. If possible, choose a device that has its own USB connection so that you can easily transfer the recording to a computer. In a pinch, pen and paper will work, but there’s no substitute for hearing loved ones tell their stories—their unique inflections, the joy, sorrow, and humor in their voices. Video cameras, though expensive, allow you to capture even more—facial expressions, gestures, fashion trends, and hairstyles. But if the pocketbook won’t allow for a video camera, an audio recording supplemented by still photos is an excellent alternative. Make sure you have fully charged batteries before the interview, as well as extra batteries and any necessary attachments. And double-check that the equipment is working properly!

Using an audio recorder to document a story

Set Up the Interview

Strategize about the conditions of your interview. Where will you hold it? It should be somewhere comfortable, quiet, and familiar to the interviewee, likely the person’s home. Let them choose. When you are setting up for the actual interview, place your equipment within easy reach, in case you need to check settings or change batteries. You want to minimize any disruptions. And have some water, lemonade, or tea on hand. Dry throats don’t make for talkative storytellers.

Conduct the Interview

Next, assemble a list of questions to ask, and if it will put your relative more at ease, give him or her a copy of these questions beforehand.

Start by getting the basics on record—the person’s full name and the names of parents and siblings, birth dates and birth places. These simple introductory questions will also help your interviewee settle in. Be sure to get spellings of names as well as nicknames. Have paper and pen handy to make notes of these; you’ll be glad you did later, when you can’t remember whether Great-Uncle Allen spells his name with an e or a.

Adult son records stories of older father

Then think about some less obvious questions that will spur conversation. “Uncle Will, what was the best advice your father gave you?” you might ask. “What did you and your five brothers fight about most?” Or find out about seasonal traditions. “What did you expect to find in your Christmas stocking, Granny? What was your favorite food at Thanksgiving dinner?”

Have family memorabilia on hand, such as jewelry, clothing, musical instruments, a special fragrance, or an heirloom. These items visually enhance a video interview and sometimes trigger poignant memories.

When a particular family event is key to your recording, sketch out some questions beginning with what you know (or think you know). If the interviewee is in the mood to talk, you might let him or her have a heyday and talk about whatever comes to mind. However, at one point or another, the interview may get off track. Sometimes people have so much to share that side stories and small details derail them. A gentle prompt question can help get things back on track. Just the opposite could happen as well—the answers might be too brief. In this case, use a verbal prompt or discuss a piece of family memorabilia to get the conversation rolling again.

Archive the Stories

Inserting a blank CD into a computer

The interview is finished, but your work isn’t! Good documentation and organization are crucial. First things first—transfer your recorded interview to a file on your computer. Make the file name specific, with the person’s name, the date, and the interview topic. The more people you are planning to interview, the more important the file name becomes for identification purposes. If you can key each question with a visual or verbal marker, you will make it easier to find specific files later. If you use tapes or cassettes rather than computer files, label them and store them away from heat and moisture.

Also, as soon after the interview as possible, create a topic-by-topic summary, which will come in handy later for cross-referencing family lore. This is a good time to scan hard copy photos and add them to the computer file, and it’s easy to take digital photos of items used during the interview, such as jewelry or needlework. You could even type up a transcription of the interview. After you’ve set up and stored the files on your computer, burn CDs or DVDs for other relatives. Maybe you’ll inspire them to join the family history project!

Capturing these oral histories for posterity is worth the effort, even if some family members show little interest in the project. This is a time-sensitive project with timeless value—a gift to your family for generations to come. And then, instead of your relatives’ lives being mysteries, your family history will be rich with details, stories, lore, and answers.

For a wonderful sampling of questions, go to the Instructables.com page on recording family histories. You can also download the list of questions directly here.

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