‘One of the Most Important Days of My Life’: An Introduction to Oral History
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“‘One of the Most Important Days of My Life’: An Introduction to Oral History,” New Era, Nov. 1973, 18

“One of the Most Important Days of My Life”:
An Introduction to Oral History

“This is one of the most important days of my life, and in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After traveling six miles through a deep ravine [Emigration Canyon] we came in full view of the valley of the Great Salt Lake. …

“It was the grandest scene that we have ever beheld to this moment. …

“After gazing a while upon this scenery we moved four miles across the tableland into the valley to the encampment of our brethren, who had arrived two days before us. They had pitched upon the bank of two small streams of pure water and had commenced plowing … they had already broken five acres of land and had begun planting potatoes. …”

It was Saturday, July 24, 1847, as Wilford Woodruff penned those first impressions of this new home for the Saints of God.

It would be hard to overestimate the value of President Woodruff’s diary and those of his brethren. These records are our eyes and ears at the beginning of Church growth in this dispensation. Without these accounts much of the day-to-day laughter, tears, and hope would be lost. That exhilaration at the smell of the first-plowed earth might have vanished with the calloused hands that worked it.

Personal histories figure significantly in modern lives as well. As the Church branches and blossoms worldwide, the recorded experiences of missionaries and many others shed light and understanding on events and people. Furthermore, as the pace of life increases, the testimonies and life-styles of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who lived outside modern technology acquire additional pertinence.

History, then, chronicles the daily drama and action, the very pulsating of life, more than mere facts and figures. It is real, exciting; it is us.

While modern technology may have taken us away from life as President Woodruff and the pioneers experienced it, certainly it has afforded us opportunities for an enrichment of our family records that their generation never dreamed of. Oral history is that open door to enhancement of family genealogies. Quite simply, it is the collection of personal retellings of events by means of a tape recorder. It could be your mother talking about her childhood, your grandfather’s remembrance of the first car, your impressions at your baptism. With a few tips, some practice, and a desire for adventure in his own backyard, anyone can become an oral historian for his family.

To begin

First, look around. Have your living grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents kept any diaries or records?* (Have you?) If so, become familiar with what information is there and what you might be able to get in addition. After you have made this determination, organize a rough outline of who are available for interview and what events in their lives should be recorded.

Second, set up an interview. Be sure the person is aware of what will happen and why. Do not give him a list of questions. That ruins the spontaneity so important to this type of history. Keep the time element open. This allows you to quit if the interviewee gets tired or continue if the information is going well.

Rapport is highly significant to the type of interview you will get. If you are nervous, the person will be influenced by you. If you act uninterested, the interviewee may not give as much information. Be aware of your part.

Equipment

It has happened more than once: the interview was fantastic, but the equipment wasn’t working. Don’t let this happen to you. No matter how professional you are, test the equipment. Know every button and knob. Always have extra tapes with you in case the time goes longer than you anticipated. Test the microphone so you know how far away you should have it for maximum sound. If possible, place the microphone on a table or somewhere other than in the person’s hand. This will keep the sound consistent and even.

While cassette tape recorders work very well, the best recorder to use is a reel to reel with 1 1/2 mil tape. This will give you the best sound and stores the longest without loss of the recorded voice. This type of equipment may be impractical in your situation, but if you intend to keep the original tape, it is a good idea to record it on reel to reel shortly after your interview.

Be sure your batteries work or that you have an extension cord. It is better to be overprepared than to lose your interview altogether.

Location

Most often anyplace will do for your interview. Remember, however, that tape recorders are very sensitive. They easily pick up street noises, children’s play sounds, vacuum cleaners. Find the quietest, least disturbed room possible. Do your best to prevent interruptions during the interview. This can disorient both you and the interviewee and cause him to forget information. Try to keep the equipment relatively inconspicuous so you are not fiddling with dials the entire time. You need to fix your attention on the interviewee, not on your equipment.

Arrange the chairs in a comfortable, conversational way. You might want to have a small table between the chairs on which you could rest the microphone while the recorder sits on the floor near you. If possible, have the room arranged prior to the interview. Be ready to go as soon as your interviewee arrives. It is important to always make him feel his time is well spent.

The interview

Be relaxed, be enthusiastic, be “with” the interviewee more than just physically. Be sure he is aware this interview is important to you and that you care about what he is saying.

Work always from general to specific questions. To begin with, ask something broad such as a question about background or childhood. Take a few notes on additional points that should be clarified from what he says. These can be added to the general outline you already have.

Let your interviewee talk. Once you have begun the interview it is vital that you keep out of it as much as possible. Encourage the person by the nodding of your head, an interested “uh-huh” or “hmmm.” Never contradict or flaunt your personal knowledge. Your voice may cancel out some of his words or garble the meaning.

Tangents are often valuable as well. If the interviewee goes off on one, let him continue. It is surprising how many times the seemingly extraneous material ties in closely to the original question.

Stay on the track of your original outline as much as possible. In the long run it will help the interview if you work toward a central idea. If the person has other information, which he well might have since you can’t know all the details of his life, be sure he has a chance to vocalize it. Never jeopardize your interview for the sake of an outline. Be flexible at all costs.

Keep the questions general enough to allow for more than yes or no answers. It is only appropriate to ask those kinds of questions on a point of information.

Don’t be afraid of mistakes. You and your interviewee may make some. This does not invalidate your tape, however, and can be deleted in the typed copy of the interview.

At the beginning or end of your tape, be sure you give the date, time, place, and full names of yourself and the interviewee. This will be important information to whoever listens to the tape in the future.

Transcription

Typing a copy of the tape gives you something to read in the event you haven’t access to a recorder and also tells you exactly what information you do have. You will find a typewritten copy very useful for both purposes. Being able to read through your text will help you decide whether another session is in order and what questions should be asked. It will also give the interviewee something to refer to.

Oral history can provide that all-important link between the past and present. All it takes is incentive and innovation coupled with a desire to record “one of the most important days of my life. …”

  • The Church Historian’s Office is interested in any old diaries or pictures that might have significance to Church history. If you find such information and think it might be valuable, please contact the Church Historian’s Office, c/o The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 50 East North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150.

Grandma and Aunt Maggie on Mother’s Day; oil painting by Dan Baxter