Break Out those Recorders

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.


Some people are natural storytellers.  You can’t help but smile when they are speaking, sharing stories from their past or just spinning yarn. Folks like this are often rooted where they grew up, knowledgeable in local history and the old ways.  They are invaluable sources and have often never imagined that people would be interested in what they have to say.  Oral history and the love of primary sources for researchers have proved otherwise. 

Most of the people I meet who are native to rural North Carolina, I meet through my work on the Overhills project, whether during interviews or meetings relating to Overhills. Johnny is one of the people whom I have met. Johnny grew up in the Harnett County – Cumberland County areas of North Carolina and knew Overhills for his entire life. He and his brother worked on Overhills and Long Valley Farm and loved it dearly. He still takes care of Long Valley Farm, which is going to become part of the North Carolina State Parks.

Johnny is a true storyteller. He is a delight to be around and hear. Johnny can talk for hours about the old ways of tobacco farming. He states that he is not an expert, though he does know a lot because his Daddy was a tobacco farmer.  In the fall and spring, Johnny still slaughters his own pigs and makes sausage and bacon and pork.  People drive by his house and stop to take pictures and ask about what he is doing because their grandparents used to do that.

Clearly he is a sponge of information and a fountain of knowledge; I think I could talk to Johnny for days and never get tired of listening. I can imagine walking tobacco fields and listening to him teach about farming and telling stories of local history.  He is animated, as nice as can be, a true Southerner, and down to earth. I do think his carefree attitude and smile is contagious. I hope everyone knows someone like Johnny, whether as a friend or as a resource.

I find inspiration in unexpected places and become reinvigorated by random people.  Johnny reminded how important my work is to so many people who loved Overhills dearly. Sometimes we underestimate the value of people as research resources, often favoring an actual document over someone’s spoken words. However, what we forget is that a newspaper article was written by a human being just as fallible as the rest of us. Personally, I tend to trust the spoken word over a historic newspaper article.  Comparing historic documents such as bills, telegrams, letters, receipt, etc. to newspaper articles, I have found many inaccurate statements in the articles. If my colleague and I weren’t searching through the Overhills documents, a future researcher could very well believe the inaccurate article over the primary documents. Hopefully our end report and project will correct any misconceptions.

Of course, the stories that people tell could just be stories mixed with fact and fiction. But for all of the otherwise-unknown details that living storytellers provide, from building locations to personal anecdotes and characteristics, to stories about those who have passed, to former road names and lessons about the old ways of occupations, the few inaccuracies are well worth the trouble and confusion. If we are only to rely on research and the “facts” via documented history, then we will find ourselves with an unfortunate gap in history.

People like Johnny help me to remember the importance of community connections and the value of reaching out to find history in unlikely places. And it’s even more fun when they are natural, entertaining storytellers.  Don’t always take the word of a newspaper article. And make sure to listen to and really hear people like Johnny. 

Your Digital Life #1

Do you imagine what people will know about you 100 years from now? What will they remember? What artifacts from your life will remain? Comparing 1908 to 2008 and our current state / adoration for material culture, it seems as though no one will ever fade away.  This is good news, right? No one wants to be forgotten and it is always interesting to learn about someone who lived 100 years ago. 

Still, what about the artifacts? Aside from general stuff, like furniture, clothes, house wares, etc. the things that really speak about you are photographs, letters, diaries, or maybe a portfolio.  But, what about the digital side of our lives? Most of us keep digital photographs and emails over photograph albums and boxes of letters.  Some of us have blogs, whether something like Preservation in Pink or something more akin to a diary, only anyone on the internet can read it. Whatever you choose, much of our modern lives exist online.

On one hand, this makes everything portable without actually having to move it. You can access your digital life from anywhere: email, photographs, blogs, Facebook, etc.  You don’t have to store hundreds of photographs and worry about losing them in the process of moving.  Important letters (now emails) won’t get lost in your stacks of books and papers or accidentally recycled.  Programs such as Google allow you to have many Gmail accounts and many Picasa albums online. I love these programs: no need for deleting email (and I can organize it) and I store all of my photographs on Picasa, heaven forbid something happens to my computer.

On the other hand, if we think in the long term: how do you pass on emails and digital space to your grandchildren? Do you have to write down all of your accounts and passwords? Do you really want your life stored on the internet forever?  In the same vein, researching people in 100 years will be much easier, especially with the digitization of historic records.

It’s just something to think about: how to organize your digital life to insure its longevity and retain your unique personality (after all, there are only so many font types in existence, as opposed to individual handwriting.)  And will future researchers use things such as email and blogs and Facebook to discover our lives? I don’t know that it’s something we have addressed yet – what happens to all of the digital records in the future. It could make for interesting research – of convenience, but lacking the character of libraries.

What do you think?