Record Your Family's Memories

Don't put off preserving your own family's unique history for generations to come.

My nephew, Connor was working on a project for school and needed to interview my dad about his time in the Army during World War II. As it turns out, my father had a lot to say (but only with much prodding) because he was a young private, 18 years old in 1943, who was shipped off to fight in Italy, wounded in both legs by sniper fire, and back to the United States before he turned 19. And that was only one of his many interesting lives!

As Connor began asking his questions, the rest of the family gathered around to hear the answers. It turned into an event in itself: My father talking about his life's events.

It got me thinking about all the stories my parents and other relatives have to tell and that it would be great to preserve the stories, for my generation and for generations to come. Now I haven't been as diligent as I would like to be in capturing my own family's tales; it can be a daunting task after all.

Here are some things you can do to get started preserving the history that is your family's alone.

1. Create a basic plan or at least an outline of the information you want to preserve. Make a list of the people you want to speak to and add to that list if the family member you're talking to suggests another individual can contribute. You may already have heard particular stories over the years that you now want to preserve -– make a list of these as well.

2. Don't try to capture everything at once. Asking someone to "Tell me all about your life" probably won't accomplish your goal. Break the project down into segments of no more than an hour (or two at the most), depending on the person. This way you'll get stories with more details and the true emotion of the event or time period.

3. A video camera is ideal because you can capture sound, picture, and emotions. Set up a tripod and put the camera to the side a bit, making sure the story teller is in the shot. As your "star" talks, the camera will be less a part of the conversation and the expression will be more natural. Be sure to save video to digital disc, to preserve it for longevity. You'll probably want to distribute your recording to other family members and most will be able to view a DVD. Be sure to make backup copies and keep them in very safe places -- cool, dry and dark is ideal. Because even DVDs and CDs can break down over time, it's wise to recopy to fresh media every few years.

Getting Started

Gather the equipment you need to begin your journey into the past. Having what you might need on hand will make the process smoother and more enjoyable, and less like a job.

  • Videocamera with tripod (or audio tape recorder)
  • Blank media (tapes or memory cards)
  • Notepad for jotting down notes
  • Family photo albums to review
  • Plan for the interview, or list of stories you want to preserve
  • Fresh water
  • Comfortable chair for your subject, in a well-lit location

4. If you have an audio or video tape recorder, that will work, too. But if you record on tape, make sure you transfer the recording to a digital format, as tapes are fragile and degrade over the years. You can usually connect the tape recorder to a computer and create a digital copy. Or you can record the audio digitally in the first place, using a pocket digital recorder or a microphone and ideally a camera plugged directly into a computer. (While not providing the best picture and sound quality, an inexpensive webcam can often do the job.) Once you have a digital recording you can preserve it on CDs or DVDs, and on a computer hard drive with backup.

5. Direct your family historian a bit if the story starts to wander. You can prepare questions ahead of time, to help stay on track and make sure you cover what you want to learn and preserve. Remember, you don't have to structure the "interview" by a particular event. Often times, just asking "Tell me about when you lived in Massachusetts" or "Tell me about when you were in high school" is a good way to steer the conversation into manageable segments.

6. Try involving two or three people who experienced the same event or time period. One person can fill in details forgotten by the other. You may have to referee when interviewing more than one at a time -- memories can be funny (and different) that way. If it looks like it's not working out, you might want to wrap up the session quickly and talk to each participant individually.

7. Another great way to capture family history is to video record yourself (or another person) with a family member looking at a photo album together. This will initiate a lot of storytelling as each picture is viewed, and often times a lot of work has already gone into grouping pictures in the order in which the events occurred.

Backup Basics

Digital video cameras and computers make it easy to store videos on your computer's hard drive. Editing video together or separating pieces of video and adding titles and sound are popular options and have also become fairly easy to do.

A recordable CD-ROM drive in a computer is a great option for backing up the priceless treasure you gather in your storytelling sessions. And you can make copies for all family members inexpensively.

Check your computer's documentation or online help for details about saving and copying video files on your computer. When you make a backup copy, it's a good idea to store it in a safe deposit box for safekeeping or minimally, store a copy in a fireproof box.

Tip: To be safe, be sure to verify your backup before storing it away for safekeeping.

Every picture tells a story

Take the time to preserve family stories for yourself and future generations. You'll create a valuable family gift all will treasure. It's never too early -- or too late -- to begin this project. Get started today!