by Kaye Nelson and edited by Aubrey Fredrickson
Most seasoned genealogists know that vital ancestral information consists of names, dates, and places. But beyond the dry facts of vital records are the stories. Hearing and reading accounts of hardships, joys, and progress help us to put faces and personalities to the names. As we hear or read humorous anecdotes, heartfelt testimonies, and mundane details of day-to-day life, we gain a fuller view of our ancestors as real people and begin connect to them as family.
In this age of remarkable technology, there is another way to record memories - digitally. No, we're not talking about digital cameras. We're talking about digital recording devices, for capturing not only the names and dates of family history, but also the priceless sound of a loved one's voice.
I've recently had several experiences that have made me realize how much oral accounts can enrich genealogical research.
My Great-aunt Dorothy is 96 years old. She is the sister of my maternal grandfather. Born in 1912, Dorothy is the only remaining child of a family of eleven. She has an incredibly sharp mind and each time we've gathered for a family reunion, she had recanted stories of her siblings, their parents, and their grandparents. She has many photos and written histories of her family, but I realized that once Dorothy passed on, so would her stories and memories.
Prompted by a desire to preserve these precious memories, I asked Dorothy if she would tell me her stories one more time. My mother and Dorothy's nephew and his wife, all in their seventies, met at Dorothy's home for a walk down memory lane. Knowing that food has a way of inviting conversation, I picked up a lunch of fried chicken for us to enjoy while we talked. Yet the most important item present that day was the digital recorder.
Olympus VN-4100PC Digital Voice Recorder - $46.48 - This recorder gives you up to 144 hours of recording time and allows you to organize your files into four separate folders (handy if you're going to be doing multiple interviews). Another useful feature are index marks, which allow you to mark a specific place in the recording so that you can go back to it later with just the push of a button. The ba
ttery has a life of 25 hours, so you won't have to worry about the recorder dying halfway through an interview. It does have a USB link for transferring files to a PC.
I discovered this device as a journalist assigned to cover government meetings and found the sound quality amazing. This is not your scratchy, muffled recording gadget of years past. Great strides have been made to produce sound quality that, when replayed, make it seem as if you are present at the original conversation. The recording is that good! But the best part is how the recorder comes apart to reveal a USB connection. Once conversations are recorded, you can plug the device right into y
our computer, download the voice files, and open them in a program such as QuickTime.
With the help of this little device, I now have something so much better than a written record of Dorothy's life. I have the voices of four of my family members, their stories punctuated by laughter, pausing to deliver a punch line or reflect on tender life moments. How invaluable it is to have not only the memories, but also the voices behind them.
My next experience with the recorder included three elderly great-aunts on my father's side: Bea, 98 years old, Madge, 94, and Shirley, 84. These women held a wealth of information about my grandfather, who died when I was six years old, and his family. They even had some tidbits about my father as a child, which were especially dear to me. While we enjoyed sub sandwiches and root beer floats, a whole new world opened up. I was treated to descriptions of the old homestead, introduced to my gre
at-grandparents, and told countless stories of injuries and ailments, play and work. It had taken some doing to get the three sisters together, but once it happened, they laughed, cackled, reminisced, and answered my questions for nearly four hours!
I learned that day that these three great-aunts have marvelous senses of humor. They were playful and teasing as they recounted childhood pranks and who did what to whom. For years, bits and pieces of a mysterious bear story had gone through my family, but no one seemed to know all the facts. That day, on the digital voice recorder, the details of the bear story were finally ironed out. To top it off, one of the great-aunts had photos of the bears. I took the pictures home and scanned them to
PDF files, adding the voice files for a complete audio/visual record.
At both of these interviews, I ran the voice recorder and just let my family members talk away. I later decided it would be wise to have my 79-year-old mother to record her life's memories. It sounds simple, but it does take planning to make this work well. First, you need to shop for a recorder that is easy for an older person to use. Large buttons with simple functions are best. Even still, it is best to walk through the instruction sheet with the person and practice using the device. After
we had fiddled with the recorder to see how it worked, I created an even simpler instruction sheet for my mother.
When approaching a monumental task like recording an entire life, it's best to have some notes from which to work. My mother and I made a list of things she wanted to mention, ranging from significant life events to trivial day-to-day matters. She used this list as a guide when recording. She could talk about something for as long as she wanted, filling in as many details as she liked. Then she would cross off that event in her notebook, so she wouldn't repeat herself further down the road.
One thing I've found, though, is that when someone records on their own it isn't nearly as exciting as when they are telling their stories to someone else. I've decided that it's best to use the recorder when our family gets together for birthdays or other occasions. If memories start flowing, as they usually do when family's gather, it's time to get that recorder out!
Let's talk about the details of purchasing a recorder. First of all, why digital? I've already mentioned a few of the advantages. The USB connection allows you to easily transfer the files to the computer. From that point you can enhance them by combining them with other types of media, such as when I put the sound files of the bear story with the pictures. Consider using the files as a voice over for a slide show of family photos for a more dynamic presentation. Whatever you do with the files
, having them on the computer makes it easy and cost effective to share with others. Just burn them to a CD or DVD and drop it in the mail.
I've mentioned how priceless the sound of a voice can be in preserving memories, but if you do want to have a written transcription as well, a digital recorder could simplify the process. Some digital recorders will come packaged with voice recognition software, or you could purchase a program separately. These programs will do the transcription for you. Or you can purchase accessories (such as headphones and foot pedals) that would assist you in manual transcription.
Okay, so which digital recorder should you buy? As always, it's important to do your homework and find the equipment that best meets your personal needs. To help you out in the process, here are a few of the options available:
Olympus VN-4100PC Digital Voice Recorder - $46.48 - This recorder gives you up to 144 hours of recording time and allows you to organize your files into four separate folders (handy if you're going to be doing multiple interviews). Another useful feature are index marks, which allow you to mark a specific place in the recording so that you can go back to it later with just the push of a button. The
battery has a life of 25 hours, so you won't have to worry about the recorder dying halfway through an interview. It does have a USB link for transferring files to a PC.
Sony ICDP620 Digital Voice Recorder PC - $57.42 - This one gives you 260 hours of recording time and four folders to store you files. A USB link. Three different recording modes, allowing you to select the quality at which you record (high quality files will take up more memory, eating away at your recording time). Also, a large LCD screen, making it easy to use.
RCA RP5130 512MB USB 140 Hour MP3 Recording Digital Voice Recorder - $47.84 - Up to 140 hours of recording time. A USB link for file transfer. Records in MP3 format. A nice feature on this one is automatic-voice activated record, meaning that it only records when someone is actually talking.
A final word about recording oral histories. Make sure you're prepared with more than just the equipment before you go into an interview. It's best to have some notes and questions ready beforehand, to give both you and the person you're interviewing some guidance. For some helpful suggestions, see our previous article, Oral Histories - Conducting Interviews.
Remember, photographs preserve the visual aspects of life, while written records portray the stories, but only a voice recording can capture the sound of a loved one's voice, filled with candor, sorrow, or joy. These sound gems, so easy to gather and share, will become a cherished family history treasure and the digital recorder makes a great gift for that favorite person in your life.
You might find this book helpful if you are attempting to capture the life history of an ederly family member -
Legacy : A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Personal History
And this software can be a wonderful aid in helping you to recall the meaningful memories from your own past while writing your own personal history -
Personal Historian Software
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