On a Genealogy and Family History to-do list, recording family stories is among the most urgent of tasks. It’s vital to protect perishable items and memories usually top that list.


The Best Way to Record Family Stories

The best way to record family stories is to video/film the storyteller. Video preserves three things:

  1. the story
  2. the storyteller’s voice
  3. the storyteller’s image & personality


From video files you can:

  1. take a still photo
  2. extract the audio file if you want a separate audio version only
  3. transcribe the story for a written version
  4. save the storyteller’s image and personality

I used to record oral histories on cassette tapes (in the 80s and 90s) and then used a transcribing machine to type them up. It makes me sad to think how much was lost by only having the audio and in some cases, only the transcribed story.

A popular free app, FamilySearch Memories, only supports audio files. This is a decent second choice but if you have access to video, choose video and extract an audio file later to upload and share.


Getting Started

Getting Started to Record Family Stories What You Need #OnGenealogy
Things you’ll need:

  • a smartphone with a camera and built-in speaker or a videocamera
  • a tripod or DIY tripod (#1 of 3  in this video would work) or cheap display easel & table
  • a quiet place to record without interruption
  • proper lighting
  • a separate microphone and stand if your camera & speaker aren’t adequate

That said, pickers can’t be choosers, so it’s better to take the video now than to postpone in hopes of some ideal future when you’ll have the perfect set up. I’m glad I videotaped my uncle on an impromptu visit because that was the last time I saw him alive. The lighting was awful, the sound is poor, and I had no tripod so the video is a little shaky, but I have 1) his story 2) his voice 3) his image and personality, all saved for posterity. 


How to Record Family Stories in 7 Steps


  1. Brainstorm Story Ideas
    • talk to the person you want to interview and write down general topics & stories they want to cover
    • create a timeline of their life with vitals like birth, marriage, children, divorce, employment, illnesses, wars, etc
    • get the most important stories first: stories about family members, children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, as far back and as far forward as the person can remember
    • bring out old albums, yearbooks, & slides to gather ideas
    • consider the person’s primary roles in life & what might spark their memory
      • someone who worked for a living might have many work-related stories to tell
      • someone who cooked or kept house might have their memory sparked by old recipes or household devices
      • music from their earlier years tends to bring back vivid memories, even for people affected by age-related memory loss
      • general interest stories may include: cars they drove, homes they lived in, the cost of items, the economy, wars, where they were when … (the first man walked on the moon, Pearl Harbor was bombed, etc)

  3. Prepare your Equipment
    • if at all possible, invest in a tripod – for $25 you can ensure your video won’t be shaky (this is pretty much my favorite device next to my smartphone)
    • in a pinch, a small easel (that holds a framed photo, etc) will work if placed on a table for height or build a DIY tripod
    • decide if you want the person to be looking into the camera or if you want to film them from an angle, they’ll naturally speak to a person vs. speak to a camera, so you need to be sitting by the camera if you want them looking toward the camera (I prefer the camera to be to the side, at least a foot away from me, so the person is not speaking directly into the camera and the interview doesn’t feel contrived and the storyteller isn’t excessively intimidated by the recording device (I just lean over now and then and check that it’s recording properly)
    • try recording yourself and see if you like the audio and video quality
    • If you need better audio quality, you can set up a microphone in a separate tripod and plug the microphone into the audio input of your camera or phone (it would be distracting and less than optimal to have the storyteller hold a microphone as he or she speaks)
    • I like to turn the phone screen away from the interviewer so they aren’t distracted by seeing themselves on camera, but optionally you can put the camera in selfie-mode and let the participants see that the story is being recorded
    How to Record Family Stories in 7 Steps #Storytelling #FamilyHistory #OnGenealogy

  5. Prepare your Interview Setting
    • make sure the room has good lighting & comfortable seating & conditions
    • ideally you don’t want a lot of light coming from directly behind the storyteller; shut window blinds behind the speaker and then look through the camera and make sure you’re happy with the level of light
    • provide the storyteller with whatever seating they’re most comfortable in, because their physical discomfort will show on the video as time wears on
    • have a glass of water, etc, to help the speaker get through a long interview
    • have any visual cues set up (objects on the table to remind them of the subject, photographs, yearbooks, etc)
    • be prepared to pause the video and take any breaks the storyteller needs and let the storyteller know you may need to pause briefly to adjust the equipment, etc
  6. How to Record Family Stories

  7. Research the Time Period
    • if you’re not familiar with the time period you’re discussing, do some research
    • be familiar with the geography, wars, military ranks, monetary units, etc, you may discuss
    • be familiar with the person’s family members/family tree and ask questions about people the storyteller doesn’t bring up-maybe they just forgot to mention one of four children but the one forgotten child will certainly notice
    • be culturally literate or include another guest who is, because if you don’t ask the right questions, you may never get to hear the stories (I like having my husband around when I interview his uncle because he relates personally to cars, fishing, & building things; he uses the lingo of a shared experience which gets my uncle to open up and share more. If the storyteller has to tell you the significance of something or define terms for you, you clearly aren’t their “crowd” and their patience may wear thin.)

  9. Ask questions and then SHUT UP
    • the caps lock SHUT UP is for me – I hate listening to old recordings where I interrupted the speaker or put words in their mouth – let them tell their story and take notes if you think you need to ask a question and clarify, but ask later. Interrupting people makes them lose track of the story they were telling and they may not be able to retrieve the memory.
    • don’t ask questions that can be answered with a yes or no
    • make eye contact and stay engaged in their story
    • when possible, give non-verbal cues that you are engaged and are listening (smile, nod your head) rather than verbal cues (“Uh huh” “Yeah”) which will encourage the speaker to continue but may also detract from the final video you  produce
    • don’t judge; you don’t have to agree with someone to be willing to listen to their story; if you show obvious disapproval they will clam up

  11. Edit the video
    • use computer editing software to edit the video, there are free online video editing options (I use a very old, free version of Camtasia, but there are many choices)
    • search YouTube.com for online tutorials for the software you choose to use (these often have tips and tricks from pros and are great refreshers for less-frequent users)
    • make a copy of the video before you edit in case you mistakenly edit too much

  13. Save and share the video
    • create a DVD of the final edited project, burn as many copies as necessary (Walmart, Costco, and other retailers can do this for you for a fee)
    • keep a USB or other external hard drive with the final edited project
    • use the 3-2-1 rule, have at least 3 copies, on at least 2 different types of media, in at least 1 offsite location
    • save the video as an audio file and consider uploading audio clips to FamilySearch Memories
    • the storyteller may want to consider offering the recording to historical societies or libraries who collect oral histories & memoirs of local residents

Don’t be intimidated by the need for ideal interview conditions. I pull out my camera when young nieces and nephews start talking to me. I try to hold the camera as still as possible but I wouldn’t miss these moments because I lack the perfect setup. I’ve taken some very poor video but the stories and storytellers are priceless.
Below is a pinnable image you can save for future reference and please follow the OnGenealogy Family Histories and Storytelling Pinterest Board for more ideas from other bloggers.

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