When we think about history, images of World Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, or other such massive cultural upheavals come to mind. History is much easier to understand when it’s summarized in these momentous themes. However, these ‘macro-history’ narratives lose the nuance and context of how people lived through these times. The individual experiences and beliefs of those who lived through times of change are often much more interesting than the larger historical narratives. These ‘micro-histories’ are fascinating! Unfortunately, these rich, first-hand accounts of history is lost little by little every day.
I love history and have been fortunate enough to talk at length with some of my older relatives. My grandfather, part of the greatest generation, fought in the Pacific during WWII. He told me about his day-to-day experiences on the islands, as well as his intense encounters with Japanese soldiers. My wife and I were fortunate to join my grandpa at a reunion with his best friend from the Army (whom he named my father after) and got to listen to them reminisce about these amazing and terrible times. I can watch hundreds of hours of programming on the History Channel and never get the intimate insights that came from these personal recollections.
My wife’s grandfather was a Nebraska farmer born in 1904 and lived an amazing 108 years. His mind stayed sharp and he was able to tell us about hitching a plow or the first time he saw a horseless carriage. He described life before indoor plumbing, electricity, or telephones. This was amazing, engrossing history, but not the sort taught in school.
I cherish what these old folk have taught me, both in the context of ‘real’ history like WWII as well as the everyday history of life on the Great Plains a century ago. Unfortunately, I along with most people do a terrible job of recognizing how precious these stories are – big or small. Oral histories tend to become degraded or lost within a generation.
The good news is we can help save some history. People have taken photographic snapshots for years, documenting everyday moments on film. We need to take a similar approach to capture people’s stories and perspectives. It may have seemed awkward at the time, but in retrospect I should have pulled out my phone and recorded an audio snapshot of these conversations. Our older population (my 40-something self included) grew up in a time before every minutiae of daily life was chronicled. It would be an amazing gift to future generations to provide these detailed insights into times gone by.
If you want to document someone’s life experience, first you must make sure they’re willing to be interviewed and recorded. People may not think their observations are notable or interesting, but help them understand the importance of what they’ve lived through. Someone who remembers a world before cars were common will have a lot of interesting comparisons to modern life. Even insights around more recent events are meaningful today.
- What was it like to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan? What were the conversations like afterward?
- Did you think there would be a nuclear war between the West and the USSR?
- How did you feel about watching a man land on the moon?
Offer your ‘historian’ a list of topics or questions, but ask for other thoughts. Giving people time to think about their own perspectives on history will help them come up with more meaningful responses, as well as remembering new stories. It is also useful to agree ahead of time if you want more of a traditional interview format or have someone speak more freely on the subjects.
Find a time and place to record the stories, and then get to it! A simple smart phone can capture the audio or video. Don’t worry about creating a professionally polished interview – just keep it relaxed.
Once you’ve recorded these discussions, share them within the family. One conversation may trigger another, giving more context to major historical shifts or daily life in times gone by. And by all means, make these stories available. You can make private or publicly-accessible channels like YouTube.
Grandma Said What?
Around the globe throughout the 1900s, the Women’s Suffrage movement fought to change societal norms to give women the vote. Today in Western culture, it would be unthinkable to argue against this basic right, but there was a time when a woman voting was considered radical.
We know not to judge foreign or ancient cultures by our current standards. Our culture today is different from what it was decades ago, and the same principle of cultural relativism applies when collecting these historical accounts. People are products of their environments, and their views are informed by the prevailing opinions when they’re growing up. Your interviewee may say things that don’t align with general opinion today, and that’s okay. Don’t judge or edit these comments out of the video. Perspectives that may be considered uncomfortable today are also an important part of history.
Moving From Snapshot to Portrait
I’ve compared the DIY audio or video recording of personal history to a snapshot. We take lots of simple pictures, but every once in a while we take the family to a professional photographer for a family portrait. If you want a better way of capturing the stories of our elders, there are professional ‘portrait’ options. Companies like Preserving With Purpose will professionally document personal histories. Having someone experienced in getting the best details from people will typically yield better stories with a polished presentation – more Ken Burns than home video. Preserving With Purpose is also curating recipes – a fun bit of historical ephemera. Be sure to look them up if you’re in Colorado! There may be other people providing similar services in your local area. The money spent could be an invaluable investment in preserving the detailed nuances of history (family or otherwise).
Every day we lose a little bit of history as people pass away. Imagine how amazing it would be for us to have recordings of people talking about fighting in the Civil War or describing life on a homestead. We can provide this sort of gift to future generations, but we have to act.
World history is told in terms of social movements and momentous events. But these massive events are formed by the millions of unique, individual stories that are often much more complex, nuanced, and interesting than the larger narratives written about in textbooks. Even insights into the evolution of technology or societal norms can be incredibly informative. What went through the minds of young women when they thought about their expected path of becoming a housewife and mother versus the possibility of pursuing a career? These perspectives and insights matter – even when the choice is for the status quo!
Let’s make the effort to save these personalized views on history. Whether you do a DIY snapshot or go for a professional portrait through someone like Preserving With Purpose, it’s on us to capture these stories!