Oral Histories

As valuable as the Clare Middlemiss papers were in writing David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, they lacked the subjective, third dimension of the real people portrayed in the book. In conducting some 200 oral histories, we found the third dimension we sought. However, we were distressed to find that most of the people we interviewed–including several General Authorities–had never recorded their reminiscences of the McKay years. The 6,000 or so pages of interview transcripts we produced thus take on added significance as a resource for future historians, providing them with information that otherwise would have been lost. Indeed, nearly 50 of the people we interviewed have since died.

Oral histories have value well beyond the writing of general Church history. In the age of telephones and computers, much that might have been written down by past generations now disappears into cyberspace. Each of us has family members, including ourselves, whose stories deserve to be preserved. Digital voice recording technology now provides an easy, relatively inexpensive way to preserve those stories. And while they will be invaluable to family members, they will also be a rich and desirable source of information for the Church Archives, for those willing to share the stories.

14 comments for “Oral Histories

  1. Julie in Austin
    August 26, 2005 at 1:44 pm

    I’ve done recorded interviews with my grandparents. Absolutely fascinating, and already of tremendous value to me.

    Whenever you visit elderly relatives, *please* interview them. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

  2. Shawn Bailey
    August 26, 2005 at 1:58 pm

    My sister recorded an interview with my grandfather to complete an assignment for a course at BYU. He died less than a year later. Not only is the information on that recording a treasure to our family now, but also the ability to hear his voice.

  3. August 26, 2005 at 2:05 pm

    I am intruiged with the StoryCorps project. I wonder if people will share any religious experiences.

    My parents were recently in town and we had friends over. They started sharing stories that I had never heard and they took for granted that I had. Made me commit to actually doing some interviewing.

    …there is an interesting idea…recording the narratives of the bloggernacle.

  4. Chad Too
    August 26, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    We took the questions from the LifeStories game (available from Amazon among others) to my wife’s family reunion; a reunion that all assumed would be Great-Uncle Warren’s last. He was of very sound mind, but poor health.

    All generations, including the children, were spellbound as Warren told stories prompted by the questions. Life in 1920-1930s era North Dakota was very different from anything point of reference the little ones had. He told great stories, too; the one about getting caught as a teenager sneaking friends into his Uncle’s movie theatre so they wouldn’t have to pay the nickel admission was priceless.

    Uncle Warren had moved from ND to Los Angeles in the late 1930s, so hearing stories about what California was like back then was really neat too.

    I’m glad we have it all on tape, especially now that Uncle Warren has passed and Aunt Thelma won’t be far behind him. If you’re the type (like me) who needs a little help figuring out what questions to ask, I recommend the LifeStories board game wholeheartedly. We never play the actual game, we just use the questions.

  5. manaen
    August 26, 2005 at 3:08 pm

    This posting sparked an idea for another kind of oral history. Although my aunt is fewer than ten years older than me, growing up as a child of my grandparents resulted in her knowing their generation and my great-grandparents’ generation much better than do I. She showed me some old family movies from the ’40s a while ago. I was enthralled to see these people, long gone, in color(!), as young people laughing, talking, cooking, horsing around, and mugging for the camera. I just realized that their on-film kisses were deliberate acts to record their love for each other. (throat lump here). Of course, these movies were silent, but my aunt’s running narration of the people and events on the screen was priceless. I’m going to ask her to record her narrations of the films and then I’ll ask my wonky brother to put them and the films on DVD.

  6. Don
    August 26, 2005 at 4:15 pm

    We did two different sessions with our family. First all my brothers and sisters got together (7 of us) and sat around and just told stories about “the good old days” growing up. It snowballed into about 2 hours of constant laughter and fun. Our kids loved seeing and hearing all the experiences.

    We then did the same thing with all 6 of our children. We had them get together and do the same thing. They had a great time and we’ve got memories now recorded for everyone.

  7. jpg
    August 26, 2005 at 6:22 pm

    Sorry, this is only indirectly related to oral histories and is another question about the book. I recall vaguely that you wrote how after Henry Moyle was called to the 1st Presidency his and Harold B. Lee’s friendship deteriorated. Was this observation based on any diary entries or interviews not referenced in the book? Also, Henry Moyle was a witness at Harold B. Lee’s second marriage which DOM performed. Do you have any idea what state their friendship was in at that point? I’m guessing it couldn’t have been too strained.

    Thanks in advance.

  8. Greg Prince
    August 26, 2005 at 7:03 pm

    A couple of suggestions regarding logistics. First, the quality of the interview is inversely proportional to the size of the recorder. If the recorder is small enough–and this is easy to do with the digital recorders–the interviewee will ignore it a couple of minutes into the interview. Second, don’t try to work through a script. While it is useful to have a few open-ended questions to start the conversation, allow the interviewee to go down any alleys he/she wants to traverse. Often the asides are more interesting than the scripted questions you would have asked, and if you put them off in order to follow your script, you’ll never get back to them.

    I strongly recommend going digital. If you are serious about this, spend a bit of money on a really decent recorder. I use the Olympus DM-20, along with the Olympus AS3000 transcription kit. At its highest quality setting, which is what you’ll always want to use, it will record up to nine hours. It has a dock with a USB plug that allows easy uploading to either PC or Mac. The sequence is 1) record the interview; 2) upload to the computer; 3) burn a CD as a permanent record, and play enough of it back to ensure that everything worked properly; 4) if possible, type a complete transcript. You’ll want to keep the voice recording, of course, but for any kind of future research the transcript is essential. If you’re of a mind to send a copy to the Church Archives, they will be grateful. However, they will generally want a transcript rather than the voice recording.

    The first interview I recorded was in 1970, the year after my mission to Brazil. It was of my grandfather, who died eight years later. The tapes sat in a closet for a quarter-century, when my brother decided to write a family history. The tapes earned their keep–and earned him two awards for his book, which was published last year.

  9. Greg Prince
    August 26, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    jpg: The information on the Moyle-Lee relationship came from several independent sources. Most were oral histories done by Dick Poll, who wrote Moyle’s biography. In addition, Hank Moyle, Henry D.’s son and namesake, confirmed the story to me. Don’t misunderstand–the men did not become enemies. However, prior to Henry’s calling into the First Presidency they had been the closest of friends. The calling put some distance into the relationship.

  10. Wilfried
    August 26, 2005 at 7:41 pm

    The logistics part Greg referred to is an important one, also and in particular the preservation aspect. Digital preservation raises quite a few issues, from hardware obsolescence to software deterioration over time. Lots of information on the web if you google with terms such as — audio digital preservation deterioration. Greg’s advice to type a complete transcript is a good one. With a copy in another place.

  11. annegb
    August 26, 2005 at 9:16 pm

    My now-deceased mother-in-law was very anti-Mormon and whenever I would get her talking, the minute she suspected a Mormon trick, she’d clam right up, so I couldn’t record much. I did write down a few things she told me about her life. I could never persuade her to let me write her story. The few things I learned, that she loved to sing as a child and sang in church, and that she liked to play basketball, are things my daughter cherishes about her grandma. Sad.

  12. August 27, 2005 at 12:53 pm

    BTW, thanks for the pointers on the digital recorder and especially the transcription kit. Cheers!

  13. Mike
    August 27, 2005 at 3:14 pm

    I am in the process of interviewing my parents on video. At their 50th Wedding Anniversary next year I will present to all the children a DVD set with all the interviews. We’ll show a condensed version at the dinner party. I’m just hoping I can preserve the DVDs (worried about comments re degradation of software, hardware, etc.)

  14. Greg Prince
    August 27, 2005 at 5:29 pm

    As Wilfried pointed out, ANY form of electronic storage, including DVD, has yet to pass the test of time. We all hope our video images, whether on tape or discs, will endure, but it is likely that new technologies will require transferring the images to new media. The most permanent kind of record is still paper, so a complete transcript of any kind of oral history is still important. Splurging on acid-free paper (100% cotton is best) is well worth the cost.

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