LENA MITCHELL: Preserving family history can begin with oral history interviews

It’s midsummer, and probably only half of the reunions planned for the year have already occurred – family reunions, school reunions, organization reunions and conferences.

During the past month I’ve attended both a family reunion and a class reunion.

Each year as I get older our family reunions become more important and meaningful to me.

This year I had the experience of bringing three teenage great-nieces and great-nephews to the reunion who hadn’t been able to attend for several years, and whose parents were unable to attend this year.

Another great-niece who had never been to one of the reunions went for the first time. Most of the previous years she attended a week-long Christian camp that always began the same weekend as our family reunion, the last weekend of June.

I’m glad that all of them are old enough that they were able to connect directly with their cousins. They’ll be able to communicate much more frequently throughout the year by texting, tweeting and on Facebook in ways that people of my generation never could have done. The technology makes it possible to bridge not only the miles between them, but also their frequency of contact.

Family reunions are even more special when the oldest family members are able to be present. All too often, however, some family members who were present the year before have died, or are too ill to attend. There’s a cosmic balance, though, because each year there are also new additions to the branches of the family tree.

We’re fortunate that this was the 44th year for our family reunion. A friend of the family who attended one of our reunion functions said her daughter was trying to piece together their family genealogy to try to bring their family closer together. Her frustration came from the fact that she was working with too many unknowns, and her mother was unable to help.

I suggested that one way to begin to begin gathering her basic information was to conduct oral history interviews with family members and family friends. The interview is basically a conversation in which you ask basic questions to obtain information for your search: Correct names of people you only know by their nicknames; spellings of names and variations, if any; what years family members were born, were married, moved to a community; and much more. Though you’re gathering information based on people’s imperfect memories, the more information overlap you find, the better your chance of being able to take another step in your search.

The Internet abounds with oral history “how to” resources. Those resources include forms that tell what questions to ask, suggestions on recording equipment to use and much more. A particularly good place to start is the Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide, to be found at http://www.folklife.si.edu/education_exhibits/resources/guide/introduction.aspx.

The University of Southern Mississippi also has an oral history program that already has gathered many oral history interviews throughout Mississippi and placed many of the recorded interviews and transcripts in local libraries. Wherever the search may take you, many other states probably have similar programs that can be a good starting point.

Though some young people are interested in history in general, and family history in particular, it often takes growing older to appreciate family history more deeply.

Think about people in your own family who have shared stories and anecdotes an treasured family stories you want to hold onto. Conducting oral history interviews may be a good way to assure the legacies of past generations of your family not only live on, but that these stories are preserved for the generations to come.

LENA MITCHELL is the Daily Journal Corinth Bureau reporter and writes a Sunday column each month. Contact her at lena.mitchell@journalinc.com.