Oral History: Preserving the Stories of Elders

I was in Milwaukee, seated lazily on the couch in my apartment while my friend and I waited for my roommate to get ready. In between small-talk, my friend mentioned his Polish ancestry and how his Grandmother had come over from Poland. When I queried when she had come to America, he responded that she had come over from Poland in the late 40s when she was just a teenager. Ever the history major, flares went off in my mind and I questioned whether she ever talked about her experiences in Poland during WWII. “No one’s ever asked her” he said with a shrug of his shoulders, the confused look on his face betraying his feelings behind my line of questioning. My roommate opening her door interrupted the remainder of the conversation and the topic was dropped.

It was none of my business, but I wondered why no one in my friend’s family had ever asked their grandmother about her history. Were they afraid? Did they think she would react badly and not want to share anything? Or had the grandmother simply never given any indication that she was open to sharing her story.

Regardless of the reason, I think history is important, especially family history. The time we have with our family is finite and once a loved one passes away, their stories and memories are taken with them. Oral history, however, offers a way for us to preserve the memories of our loved ones.

What is oral history? It involves interviewing people about their memories and experiences and preserves records of people, places and events. It’s even used to preserve folklore from different cultures.[1] It also serves as a great way to preserve the stories of our elders and loved ones in a fairly easy manner.

The first step in any Oral history project is getting the interviewees permission to be interviewed. Since most oral histories are recorded this should be made clear to the interviewee. Once permission is attained, the real work begins. The following steps should be taken prior to any interview:

  • Have a focus for the interview
  • Do appropriate background research
  • Develop a list of questions that you wish to ask
  • Prior to the interview, discuss the topics to be discuss with the interviewee, answer any questions they have, listen to topic suggestions from the interviewee. [2]


The actual interview should be conducted in a quiet place and should be recorded. During the interview, be sure to listen carefully to the interviewee and ask follow up questions based on the answers that are given. The interview is about the experiences of the interviewee and the person conducting the interview should allow the perspective and feelings of the subject to come through clearly.[3] Its ok to deviate from set questions, don’t box yourself in to a plan you had established in your mind.

These guidelines aren’t set in stone by any means, but they are a good guideline in which to start with. Make the experience your own and feel free to make accommodations to make the loved one you’re interviewing more comfortable. There are plenty of resources online to get you started. You can even get in touch with your local historical society or history professor if you feel that you need more guidance.

The same friend who had never asked his Polish grandmother about her life came to me two weeks later, his face bright with excitement and the words running out of his mouth faster than his brain could process them. At dinner recently, his family sat down with his grandmother and asked her about her time in Poland. What she had shared was moving and tragic but had also amazed them all with the strength of their grandmother. I can’t put words in his mouth, but he seemed to come back with a newfound respect for his grandmother. Knowing all she had been through and sacrificed had shown him a new side to the woman whom he often complained insisted on calling him by his Polish name instead of his English one. It didn’t seem to bother him so much anymore.

Oral history techniques are good to utilize when talking to loved ones about their experiences. If the idea of recording makes you uncomfortable, write notes and craft a narrative afterward. But please, talk to your loved ones if they are willing to share their stories and experiences. Preserve their stories, experiences and feelings and pass them on to future generations. I guarantee that you will be glad you did.


Further Reading:

Indiana University Center for the Study of History and Memory

Oral History Techniques

Principles and Best Practices for Oral History

Step-by-Step Oral History Guide

[1] Center for the Study of History and Memory “Oral History Techniques” Indiana University. Accessed June 8, 2017. http://www.indiana.edu/%7Ecshm/techniques.html

[2] “Principles and Best Practices” Oral History Association. October 2009. Accessed June 8, 2017. http://www.oralhistory.org/about/principles-and-practices/

[3] Ibid.

Photo courtesy of McGonagle family, reuse prohibited without written consent.

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