Michael H. McGrath is a past president of Preservation Delaware.
Some months ago, the African American Cultural Resources Task Force of Preservation Delaware Inc. completed an oral history project to collect the stories and the histories of students and teachers of the DuPont Colored Schools. This groundbreaking effort captured the recollections, in their own words and images, of these former students and teachers from a time when education was still segregated and formed one of the central forces in these communities.
Preserving these stories, as audio and video computer files, fills in the fine grain of history that is often missed. And you and your family also have a “history” worth recording and preserving. You may have seen the popular PBS series, “Finding Your Roots,” with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and thought, “I wonder what is in my family’s history.” Your own oral history project could help fill in that story.
Our history books are replete with the stories of famous people, famous places and famous events. However, historians are frequently short of information on everyday people, their lives and the events that surrounded them. Each of us can assist in filling in this everyday history. Your personal oral history project is a good way to start. Modern technology, especially mobile phones, can make this an easy and enjoyable task. You probably already know how to use your mobile phone, pad or digital camera to make a video. There are any number of apps for digital devices that enable audio recordings.
But what to record?
You have elders in your family who can share personal and family history — start with them. Why? Because that generation is passing into history and can share all about life “back in the day.”
In the DuPont Schools project, we focused on the oldest respondents because their stories will soon be gone. But don’t stop with your family alone — you belong to organizations that have a rich history of their own. You might want to interview the older members of your religious institution, of your fire department, of your civic club — or just the older neighbors in your town. They can share the rich history of your town, schools and your neighborhood — all will be of interest to you, those of your generation and historians far into the future.
How to begin? You will need to compose the questions that you will use when you interview those who you choose to record. What would you like to know? Write down the questions and use the list whenever you interview and make a recording. Start with things like “What was it like when you were a child?” “What do you remember about your school?” “What was the church service like back in the day?” “What kind of meals did your mother cook?” The questions are endless and should lead to a conversation that expands into other areas that you may not have considered.
It will be a good idea to try out the technology that you’re going to be using to make recordings before actually starting interviews. Practice on members of your family until you get the techniques down pat. You will also want to learn how to organize your recordings using a clear file-naming convention, one that records the date and name of the person who’s speaking on the recording. Always start each recording by speaking the date, time and person interviewed. You may want to create a file directory system to organize your work. Do you want to create a transcription? In other words, type out the questions and answers. Software is available online and on mobile devices that can handle this job.
You will want to preserve and share your work. Where will these oral histories reside? Making copies of your recordings on the relatively inexpensive thumb drives now available will make it possible to share your project with other family members, friends and repositories of history. You can share the recordings that you file online in such places as Google Drive or Dropbox. This is a convenient way to share with family and friends. If you have permission, and it’s appropriate, you can use online platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to share links to your online recordings. Always get permission from those you interview before making an interview public. It’s best if the permission is in writing.
Depending upon the interviews that you choose to do, you may want to share your work. One place to preserve your Delaware oral history is the Delaware Heritage Commission (heritage.delaware.gov/oral-history). You could also share your work with a local historical society or town museum, the Delaware Public Archives or perhaps in the records of the organization that was the subject of interviews. Also, you may want to participate in the work of StoryCorps (storycorps.org) that is about sharing and preserving humanity’s stories.
History is really just our shared stories. Those stories are important to our full understanding and appreciation of family, community and nation. Your work in preserving the oral histories of your family and community can be a valuable addition to the history of Delaware. The voices you record become part of our history — our shared stories.