Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Family Oral History – What’s In It for Me?

I welcome this guest post from overseas blogger / oral historian Greg Lawrence. Greg and I "met" through Twitter and have done a cultural blog exchange, of sorts. A couple of months ago, he was kind enough to ask me to guest blog for his site, resulting in the post "My Stuff, My Life: Archives – What should I keep?" on Greg's Lifetime Memories and Stories site. My basic primer on archives is complimented by his on oral history - two topics and professions that go hand-in-hand.

Family Oral History – What’s In It for Me?
by Greg Lawrence

Oral history is the recording of people’s memories of their life or their life experiences.

The only way you can find out about a person’s life, what they have experienced or their thoughts on events is to ask them or, if they have already written about them, read what they have already written.

An oral history either creates a record of an event or experience or supplements a record that has already been made through documents and written histories. Oral histories offer layers of information and detail that often is just that much richer than what any written history can offer.

Why should I bother or why should I be interested I hear you ask? Well, let me put it in a more personal way that will allow you just a small glimpse of how an oral history can make a difference to you and your family.

Imagine that you are visiting a favourite aunt or uncle or perhaps your parents over a holiday time and you are sharing time doing something together. Maybe you are fishing on the river.

As you cast your line in your uncle says “I remember when there were so many catfish on this river that just your sinker hitting the water would get you a catch.” “Oh go on Uncle Joe, you’re kidding me right?” you say. “No” he says, “It was just after the big flood in ’49 that took out the Jamestown Bridge for 6mths, I had to punt across to go to work all that time.”

In this small exchange you are learning several interesting snippets of your family history. Uncle Joe has:
• Fished for a long time
• The catfish used to be really plentiful in the river
• There was a big flood in 1949
• The Jamestown Bridge was destroyed in the flood
• Uncle Joe worked across the other side of the river at the time
• The flood had an impact on Uncle Joe who used a punt to cross the river while the bridge was out

People have these sorts of exchanges all the time in their interaction with family. Now imagine what more you could learn if you actually took the time to sit down with your imaginary “Uncle Joe” to conduct a more formal oral history interview with him about his life. Imagine how many stories about his life and the times and events he witnessed you would learn. What a richness of information and pleasure you will get from listening to his stories and he will get from sharing them with you!

However, an oral history has even more to offer you and your family. As you listen to the stories, hopefully making an oral history sound recording of them for all time, you will hear the different emotions expressed richly through your speaker’s voice. The excitement, sadness, joy, hopes and fears come alive with all the words that they normally use in their life and you, the person recording this, has the opportunity to not only preserve important elements of your family history but also to capture nuances of the emotions as your story teller shares their story with you. In turn, through the recording, you will be able to share this experience with your children and great grandchildren and they in turn can share it with theirs. So with a little effort you can create a living record which can be a valuable family legacy to pass on for your future generations.
Just imagine how fantastic it would be that in ten, twenty, fifty or even a hundred years or more to have your family stories available for your descendents to be able to listen to and through which gain a greater understanding of your forbears. Now that is what’s in it for you! To preserve your family stories to share for all time.

Greg Lawrence is principal Oral Historian with Lifetime Memories and Stories, a professional life story company based on the Central Coast of New South Wales, Australia, just north of Sydney. Through Lifetime Memories and Stories Greg helps families preserve their stories for future generations through oral histories and life story books.

For more information and tips on preserving family stories visit: http://www.lifetimememoriesandstories.com

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