16 January 2014

Oral History at Risk of Disappearing Within 3 Generations!

The headline of this recent piece is kind of scary to read -- Oral family history can be lost in three generations.  Yet, it does ring quite true as I recently wrote about in Forget What You Know & Challenge Assumptions -- You Might Just Knock Down that Brick Wall! where I talk about family lore given to me by my grandmother (2 generations from me talking about her great-grandparents (3 generations from her)) and the various errors that had crept in.  Now imagine going back a few more generations and relying on family lore (aka oral history) and one can just imagine an increased amount of inaccuracy to be found.

Think about it, how often can a group play telephone and end up with the same message that they started with?

In the mentioned article, Aaron Holt, National Archives Fort Worth states ...

“I tell people all the time that it only takes three generations to lose a piece of oral family history,” Holt said. “It must be purposely and accurately repeated over and over again through the generations to be preserved for a genealogist today.”

This reminds us that it’s imperative that we collect as much oral history as we can and that we then seek out documentary evidence to support what we’ve been told.  In this manner, future “oral history” will not perpetuate incorrect or incomplete information as it previously did in the absence of documentation.  Future generations will be able to “refresh” their memories with the archived and substantiated oral history legacies that we will now leave.

Here are some resources on capturing oral history:
+ Oral History & Interviews (Cyndi’s List)

Remember though that we will NOT be able to substantiate and document everything we are told via an oral history. Remember the expression “the devil is in the detail”?  So much of “life” is all the little details of life which will NEVER be documented except by us collecting oral history.  For example, before a distant great aunt died, she sent me a collection of her recollections about various family members, including my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and others.  Most of these are not the type of stories that will ever be “officially” documented and yet they are priceless to me.  I published these online in A Window of Memories.  I did this to give a voice to my great aunt’s recollections and to also remind us all that it’s so many of the “little” things that make our ancestors more “human” to us.  I never think of my mom now without thinking of the wallpaper incident (page 22) or the caterpillar (page 21), or of my grandmother and the customs of the day about wedding blankets (page 19).  Every time I read these stories all of these long-deceased individuals come alive to me and that truly is “priceless.”

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