As historians, archaeologists, and historic preservationists, we spend much of our time researching the lives of others, people we never knew, and people to whom we do not have a connection. We learn these family histories so well that we know the birthdays, occupations, and interests of our research subjects. Yet, as you sit around your Thanksgiving table each year with your siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents, and other family members, do you ever consider documenting your own family history? Do you ask questions of your family like you would in your research?
If only the people that we are researching had recorded their family histories, then our research would be much easier. Whether it’s a family tree or a detailed family history, keeping all of the information in one place is a priceless family heirloom. Even if your relatives have not fought in wars, saved the world, or traveled extensively, it is still important to learn your family history.
Of course, I’m guilty of the same thing. Oral history is my job. I talk to people about their lives and research their family history quite often. But by the time I get home from work, I’m tired of doing research. I listen to family stories and talk to my relatives, but I haven’t recorded these stories yet, whether with an audio recorder or on paper. It’s something I need to do. I own a handheld audio recorder, so this is not my impeder.
Some of your family members may find it strange that you would take the time to record them, or they might be uncomfortable. My advice is to talk about it first, give them time to think, and express how important it is for family history and how much you would enjoy the opportunity. And if you’re not inclined to do audio recording, taking the time to write what you have heard is the next best thing. After all, photographs can only tell so much about people. We need the back stories to the situations and the people.
Just think about it. Everyone has a story to tell. You can collect stories bit by bit, just be sure to label (date, name) whatever is that you have (audio, text). Start small. Write down what you know about your family. How did your parents meet? How did your grandparents meet? Those are easy questions that most people are willing to answer. As you do this more frequently you can get into the more open-ended questions.
You don’t have to be a professional. You don’t even have to be a historian. You just have to ask and listen. And someday remember to share these stories with your family, whether in a book, a word file, a blog, or something else. Your family with thank you.