1. Be prepared. How many times have you been sitting and listening to an older relative tell a story, or talk about the past, when you find yourself wishing this conversation were being recorded?
Today’s technology makes recording so simple that nobody who really cares about capturing their family stories should have to feel this way anymore. Digital recorders the size of cigarette lighters, available in variety of styles for under $100 at your local electronics store (or online) make it easy for you to always have the equipment needed at hand. And operating them is simple enough (trust me, if I can do it, so can you!), and their tiny size is unobtrusive enough, that the technology doesn’t take over the show, or get in the way of the conversation.
Of course you don’t have to have a recorder at all. But capturing the voice of your interviewee as well as the stories is a really nice addition, and it’s easier to get the whole story that way too.
2) Be curious. My own tiny, unscientific, totally anecdotal survey has revealed that one of the most common regrets among surviving family members about departed loved ones is that they didn’t think to ask certain questions of those loved ones before they passed away. So why not try to think ahead to what some of those questions you will regret not having asked are–and ask them now, while you can? (What is your earliest memory? What was your grandmother/grandfather like? Where did you go to school (and how did you get there)? What did you and your friends do for fun? What was your first job? How (and where) did you meet Mom/Dad? What do you remember about the day Pearl Harbor was attacked? What do you remember about the day I was born? and so on…)
Most parents (or other relatives) will be pleased to know you care, and will feel good about contributing to the capturing of family memories. And even those who are gruff, or at a loss for how to answer at first may come around when they see you are truly interested, and that you’re not looking for anything earthshaking, just some of the details of daily life that would otherwise disappear into the unremembered past. (Having a few pictures on hand to help prompt memories may also be helpful for those who are reluctant or who have trouble answering very general questions.)
3. Be organized. Once you’ve got the material captured, make sure you take the next important step: put it into a form and in a place where you’ll know it is, so you can find it again and share it. (In fact, sharing the gathered material with someone else in your family right away is a very good idea, so that if it gets lost from one place, it can be found in another.)
4. Be imaginative. Sometimes the information is gathered, but then nothing is done with it. How can you use the material you have gathered to help bring your (extended) family closer together? A transcription of some of the material shared on a family website or blog, or photocopied and distributed, along with pictures, might be one way.
Also, how can you engage your children and grandchildren in this process? Some of them may be fairly uninterested at least in the beginning: but once you start showing pictures and telling them specific stories you’ve gathered, their interest may be ignited. Maybe you can even try to get them to do some of the interviewing. It’s a great way to bring generations together in a common enterprise, and teach the younger ones some valuable interviewing skills as well.
5. Be community-minded. Is the material you’ve gathered material that would be of interest to your local historical society, religious organization, or other community entity? It’s always important to respect the privacy of the people you interview, as well as anyone who may have been discussed in the interviews, and to gain permission for sharing it (even, perhaps even especially, within the family!) But, that caveat aside, think about sharing the history you’ve gathered with a larger community. You will be adding to the store of the community’s history, and maybe inspiring others to capture their own family stories as well.