I have been lecturing recently on the topic of “Oral History for the Genealogist.” When I get the opportunity, I like to ask my audience to give me their definition for “oral history.” I explain that lexicographers (dictionary compilers) generally create definitions from how the word is used in speech and writing. So, I tell the audience, they either can offer up a dictionary-like definition or give me an example of a genealogist, like themselves, engaging in “family oral history.” In social science research, this kind of definition is called an operational definition. Whether or not formally stated (such as in my little exercise), operational definitions greatly influence how we interpret our sources and our data.
I have received a variety of definitions, one which I want to discuss here. This definition is simply stated as: “Oral history is what you get from family when you ask them to tell you about your ancestors. It helps you find records.” What is interesting about this definition is the embedded assumption that family “oral history” is part of your early research, but has little additional value as your research matures into looking at written records.
I hope to correct a misconception about the “starting with family” advice given to most beginner genealogists. It’s not that I disagree with that advice. I support approaching family early in your research. However, the manner in which this advice is communicated suggests that once you have visited mom, Grandpa Jones or Aunt Mayzie—once you’ve gotten elders tell you the names and vitals of all the ancestors that they can recall—you can contentedly consign your living relatives back to holiday visits and the periodic phone call to catch up on current events. The fact that they might know more about the family genealogy than they initially provided just does not get the attention that I am convinced is warranted.
© History Chasers
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