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Interviewing family, friends helps capture local history before it's lost

In this week's Remember This, Newmarket History Hound Richard MacLeod shares tips to conduct successful oral history recordings — you may have the time during the pandemic
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Capturing our local history to ensure that it is never lost, and readily available to generations to come, is a topic close to my heart.  

I have been interviewing people and conducting oral history interviews for years, back to my university days. Now that I am getting a little older, it is my passion to encourage people to record their oral history, so much so that I raise moneythrough my other activities so I can offer to help people collect their own memories on video at no cost to them.

In this article, I’ll outline how you can become involved in the process, how to record the life story of yourself or someone you care about so that is never lost, to mark that you were here and made a difference. 

Oral histories are stories told by living people about the past. Generally, these are stories of their own lives and the lives of the people around them. An oral history includes details and stories that exist nowhere other than in these individual's minds and souls. 

Therefore, preserving these oral histories and family stories should be a top priority for any person interested in our local history. 

Your grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives all have valuable information to share about your family history, whether they know it or not. All you really need to do is ask the right questions so don’t ever let anyone tell you that they have nothing to contribute. 

We all know people, whether within our own family or a neighbor or friend, who are known to be a wealth of information about our collective local history. Ask your family or friends who they think would know the most about our history and if the same name keeps coming up, then that is where you should start your search.

When I conduct classes on oral history interviews, I usually suggest people start with their mother and father and grandparents.

One important thing to keep in mind as you are making your list is whether there is someone on the list who is getting on in years. They should be at the top of the list.

Some people might be hesitant to talk about themselves initially, thinking they do not have any information of value or that their stories really aren't worth hearing. It is imperative that you convince them otherwise. Everyone's story is unique and all of us deserve to be remembered. 

A valuable tip to remember is that oral history interviews do not necessarily mean a one-on-one formal interview. Some of the best stories come from getting a group of family members together around the kitchen table (or a bar) with a voice or video recorder running off in the corner.

Meeting face to face with your interviewee is the best opportunity for a comfortable environment, back-and-forth participation, video recording and the personal touches that are so hard to achieve long distance. 

That does not preclude interviews conducted on paper and through email. I suggest you send an introductory letter or email to create a rapport with your subject by telling them about yourself, your family and why you are so interested in the history of their life. 

Follow with a list of open-ended questions. I find that this usually results in a much better response than a letter saying "tell me everything about yourself " or a list of fill-in-the blank questions. Increase your chances of a reply by including a self-addressed, stamped return envelope. 

Email is a wonderful invention that can be successfully used to collect oral histories, but you may find some interviewees, especially older ones, don't trust or have access to the technology.

If you have a subject who loves email, then by all means use it, but do not expect to gather much useful information that way from someone who seems reluctant about the whole process. 

Phone interviews can be tough, especially when you are interviewing people you hardly know, but they offer the back-and-forth exchange you cannot easily achieve through email. 

A phone interview is also a practical way to reach friends and relatives who live too far to justify an in-person interview and can also make it easier to collect information over an extended period of time. 

Be prepared for a bit of shyness when calling people who do not know you very well. They may not trust your motives. 

Prepare by learning everything you can about the person you plan to interview. This will help develop specific questions or tailor the interview to the unique perspective of that individual. Basic knowledge of your subject will also confirm your interest and assist you in developing rapport. 

Questions help your subject remember; therefore, asking the right questions will give you the greatest chance of a successful interview. Think about your objectives: What do you already know? What do you want to learn? 

Keep these points in mind: 

  • Do your research. Have your notes in front of you to help formulate questions to fill in some of the holes in your research. 
  • Use open-ended questions that encourage personal commentary, rather than close-ended questions that only require "yes" or "no" answers. 
  • It's always important to gather some basic facts, but it's almost more important to elicit stories — the type of information you won't find in most history books. Instead of your basic who, when, and where, think how, what and why. 
  • Try to elicit facts, as well as feelings and descriptions. While you should always try to elicit such details as names and dates, remember that facts also include finding out how, why, where and with what results. 
  • People's memories are generally tied to specific triggers. Ask questions about specific events or other concrete experiences, such as a description of a typical Saturday morning at home when they were children.
  • While it may seem silly to create a plan for talking to your own family or friends, it will greatly improve your chances of success. Make an appointment with your subject and rank your list of questions in order of importance. 

I usually send the interviewee a list of my general questions or summary of the topics I wish to cover in advance. This gives them time to think about people and events that may not have occurred to them in a long time. 

Be prepared for your visit with a notebook, pen, and audio or video recorder (including extra tapes and batteries). An oral or video record of the interview is a big plus as it means you can spend more time developing a rapport with your interviewee and less time scribbling madly. 

Second tip - do not plan to record the interview if this really makes your subject uncomfortable, however. 

I like to arrive early to set up and test my recording equipment. The less you fiddle with it after your subject arrives, the less intimidating it will be. Be sure the room you choose is comfortable and free of outside noise and distractions. 

Once your interviewee arrives, settle him or her in a comfortable chair and offer water or other refreshments. 

If you are taping the interview, I suggest beginning by stating your name, the interviewee's name, the date and location. Then, to help everyone relax, start with a few simple, easy questions; a story you've heard them tell many times; or even a little off-topic chit-chat. Once everyone is more comfortable, you can move on to the personal questions. 

Finally, just because you have turned the camera or recorder off doesn't mean the interview is over. Now is the time to say thank you, to chat about what you have learned. Be sure that the interviewee understands what you plan to do with the interview and is comfortable with the arrangements. 

Once you are back home, sit down and make a transcription of your interview. Then send a copy to the interviewee along with a thank you note.

I hope I have encouraged you to conduct an oral history interview or two once this quarantine is behind us. During this pandemic, I urge you to use the time available to capture the essence of others’ lives. Life and life’s stories are so very precious.

I am only one person and this town is full of people who I believe just must be interviewed. Help me capture our town’s history, won’t you? 

If you have questions, email me at brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at