Tales from the Tread: Recording your family history

Learn how to record your family’s history with these tips. (Photo courtesy Stanford Historical Society)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Recording memories and stories through oral history are just one way museums, archives and historical societies collect and preserve local history. But with today’s smartphone technology, anyone can record their family’s memories and stories to enjoy and share with family members and ensure that it’s available for future generations.

Here are some simple steps to get started.

Step 1: Research and prepare your questions

Do some research on the person you want to interview ahead of time. Know some basics and some highlights about the person and their life to have prepared questions — on one piece of paper — ready to make the interview memorable and valuable. You can use birth/death records, documents, diaries, journals, newspapers, school records, publications, photographs and more to do your research. Or, perhaps you can ask another relative questions that can help you prepare for the interview.

You can send the questions to the relative you will interview ahead of time. They might want to prepare or ask other family members to help them recall memories. Ask open-ended questions that require more than yes or no answers. Ask questions like: Tell me about…? What was it like…? Explain or describe…? How did you…?

Search a few family history websites like or The Genealogy Guide for sample questions to get started.

Step 2: Recording video or audio

Smartphones and digital cameras are great for video interviews. You can use video-editing software to edit the clips later. Consider an inexpensive tabletop tripod for the phone or camera to stabilize the recording and keep your arms free for the interview. To significantly improve sound quality, you can also purchase an inexpensive external microphone.

Since video files take up a lot of storage on your smartphone, and many people may not be comfortable with a video interview, a simple audio recording can suffice. You have several options that include: downloading easy audio recording apps for iPhone or Android; buying a pocket audio recorder that can record mp3 files and download them to your computer; recording directly to your laptop or desktop using an external microphone and software like Audacity to record and edit the interviews; and if you are not in person, recording a video call, such as a Zoom meeting or a Google Meet.

Step 3: Share your history

When you have finished and edited your interviews, you can share your interviews with the rest of your family and a local museum if appropriate. You can post the files to a password-protected file-sharing site like Dropbox or Google Drive. Interviews of family members make great holiday gifts for other relatives.

Recording family histories for personal/family use can be simply a recorded conversation between two people. There is no pressure to get the perfect interview when recording memories. However, here are some tips if you want to create a great and meaningful interview:

• Create an order to your questions that makes sense, but be flexible if the conversation takes a turn.

• Ask perceptive questions to clarify topics, details and memories.

• Repeat questions if needed and ask for clarification on anything you think is confusing or hard to hear.

• Make connections among seemingly disconnected recollections to help weave a story if there is one.

• The best interviewers listen carefully between the lines to determine what the narrator is trying to say and help fill in the gaps to create a cohesive story of a person’s life, subjects or events.

While recording your family history can seem like a daunting task, with today’s smartphone technology and apps, you can quickly and easily record memories of loved ones. Creating these connections between generations can be easy and fun and builds a legacy for the future.

Candice Bannister is executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs.

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