clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


I began collecting stories of my family when I was in fourth grade. I distinctly remember perching on Nana's scratchy mohair couch, trying to keep up with the words to get her story down in my small brown, narrowly ruled spiral notebook. It was frustrating. Dad kept saying, "Just write fast, Deirdre, don't worry about the spelling."

Now, copy machines, tape and video recorders, and computers have removed much of the frustration from collecting family histories. With a little "know how," you can celebrate an ancestor's life, discovering the person behind the facts.Collect Journals, Letters, Autobiographies and Biographies

My mother thought we had gathered all the records in her mother's family. But there were unanswered questions and uncharted gaps of time. We prayed and began asking distant relatives if they happened to have any histories of the Fawcetts or Milnes. Histories, letters and photographs we had no idea existed have now materialized. This can happen to you. Once you have the records, there are a few tips that need to be followed to keep them in good condition for your children:

1. Copy records onto acid-free paper. Acid-free paper is becoming widely available.

2. Use a copier that utilizes a powdered toner. This toner is carbon and is permanent.

3. If the history has been retyped using a computer, copy the document onto a floppy disk.

4. When retyping a handwritten record, retain the original spelling and grammar. Sometimes you will need to add punctuation and paragraphing. At the end of the typed copy, indicate who has the original journal, if known, and what kinds of editing were done. Tape-record Personal Histories

Tape recorded histories can be spontaneous and enlightening.Through my 30 hours of taping my grandfather, I learned some valuable tips about preparing, executing and following up on an interview.

1. Research the person's life as much as possible so you can ask meaningful questions. The questions should be "open-ended" questions that can't be answered by a "yes" or a "no." For example, Grandpa, what was your favorite holiday and why? What childhood games did you play? Did you ever get in trouble? Describe your town, your school? The possibilities are endless.

2. Give the interviewee a list of general questions in advance. It is also helpful to encourage them to gather up old photographs, quilts, baby clothes, wedding dresses, and any other artifacts that would serve as memory "prompts."

3. Don't wait to tape your loved ones. It may be too late.

4. Be familiar with your recorder.

5. Use C60 brand name cassette tapes. C90 tapes are too thin and micro-cassette tapes haven't been adequately tested over time. If you have access to a reel-to-reel recorder, it will preserve your histories the longest.

6. An external microphone is preferable to a built-in microphone. A mike that attaches to the collar of the interviewee is the best.


1. Whenever possible, plug in your recorder.

2. Pad the surface on which you place the recorder.

3. Leave the phone off the hook, put a "Do not disturb" sign on the door, don't run the dishwasher.

4. Make certain interviewee's name, date and place of interview, and who is present, is on the beginning of the tape.

5. During the interview, show interest by asking limited questions. Save clarifications until the end of the interview.

6. Don't forget to collect songs, rhymes, and childhood chants.

7. Tape in one- to two-hour segments. You don't want to tire your interviewee.


1. Transcribe the tape. Word processors are wonderful for this, but if you don't have access to one and if you can't type, make a handwritten copy.

2. Edit sparingly. Don't correct grammar, but do delete "uhs" and "buts." Put the transcript into paragraphs so it is readable. Indicate laughter and actions in brackets: [audience laughed uncontrollablyT.

3. Allow interviewee to correct the transcription. Double check names, dates and places.

4. Put final copy on acid-free paper and include a picture of the interviewee on the title page.

Videotape Personal Histories

It is even more important when videotaping to have your informant gather up photographs and personal possessions. Follow these guidelines:

1. Have another person handle the camera while you maintain eye contact with the interviewee and ask questions. The video camera should be set on a tripod.

2. Don't locate your subject in front of a window.

3. The more you know about your camera, the better. Be careful not to retape over important information.

4. Use super high-grade tapes.

5. Store tapes "on edge" so they stand upright. Store them at least 10 feet from any machine which would create a magnetic field, such as a television.

6. Rewind tapes at least once a year.

Celebrate the details.

Collecting personal memories of a loved one is rewarding. Look for the details that make your relatives come alive. Celebrate their lives by asking questions that lead you to their humanity.

- Deirdre Paulsen teaches honors writing and folklore classes at BYU, has published two books and lectures on preserving memories, journal writing and folklore. She is Mia Maid adviser in the East Millcreek 6th Ward, East Millcreek Stake.