“Dial-a-History,” Ensign, July 1988, 71


Several years ago when I first began collecting oral family histories, I flew to Wisconsin to conduct an interview with a great-aunt, who was quite old and ill. Counting travel expenses and time away from work, that three-hour interview cost me more than eight hundred dollars. In addition, I used several of my yearly vacation days, and the long conversation made both my aunt and me tired—decreasing its effectiveness.

Then I discovered an easier, less expensive, less time-consuming way to gather oral histories. I began conducting my interviews over the telephone.

Aside from a standard tape recorder, the only piece of equipment you need is a record control, which allows you to record sound coming through the telephone. Prices for a record control range from two dollars for one that attaches to the handset of the telephone to about twenty dollars for a control that plugs directly into the telephone jack. The more expensive record control yields better sound quality.

When conducting your phone interviews, consider the following points:

  1. Use good equipment. One of the disadvantages of recording someone’s voice over the telephone is that the voice quality is not as sharp as it might be if you were interviewing in person. Maximize voice quality by using a good recorder.

  2. Test your equipment. Time is money when you are making a long-distance phone call. Become familiar with your equipment so you don’t waste valuable time trying to figure out how to operate it. Call a neighbor and tape the conversation to ensure that everything is working.

  3. Limit your interview to one hour. Responding to lots of questions can be tiring, especially to an older person, and the constant need to keep the mouthpiece near the speaker’s mouth becomes uncomfortable after a while. Besides, family members will probably be delighted to receive several one-hour calls from someone who is interested in their lives. Use the time between interviews to review the tapes and prepare questions for the next session.

  4. Prepare for the interview in advance. Tell your subject what will happen during the interview and what you want to accomplish. In a phone call or a letter, explain what you will do and how you will do it. Arrange a time to call when it is convenient for both of you, then send your relative a list of questions to think about before you call.

  5. Prepare questions that will evoke helpful conversation. Since you cannot use photographs or family artifacts to prompt your subject’s memory, you must be sure that your questions provide good prompts. Talk to other family members before the interview to get information that will help you ask meaningful questions.

  6. Interview on the weekends. Telephone rates are much lower on the weekends. Look for companies that offer discount rates for quantity calling; this can lower your expenses even more. Weekends also provide a time when family members may not be hurrying off to work or other responsibilities.

Oral histories are a valuable part of any family’s genealogy. Now, gathering those histories can be as simple as making a long-distance phone call.—Steve Anderson, Lindon, Utah

Illustrated by Rob Magiera