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Why Is Oral Family History Important?

Why is oral family history important? In this post, learn why this aspect of family tree research is key to understand our family’s broader story.

Plus, you will also find out:

  • The purpose of oral family history
  • Whether oral history provides historical information
  • Why this type of history is especially important to certain communities
  • How to document your family’s oral history

Have you given much thought to preserving your family’s oral history? It’s an aspect of family tree research that is often overlooked.

Why Is Oral Family History Important?

Most of us have heard at least a little bit about our family history by listening to older family members having conversations. However, there is a good chance that only a few of us paid as much attention as we should have – or wish we had.

Are these old stories, told by people who might not be remembering them correctly, even important? Why worry about oral history when we have documents and DNA evidence that can tell us all we need to know?

What is the purpose of oral family history history?

Oral or spoken family history provides vital context for our genealogical research. By listening to and documenting family members speaking about their ancestors, lives, and memories, we have an opportunity to learn how they viewed important events in their lives.

In addition, not everything important is preserved in an official document, and some historical records have been destroyed. There is a great amount of actual, real history that only our living relatives can teach us about.

If we don’t ask the right questions, pay attention, and document this history, we might miss our chance. It’s also a fantastic way to help our older relatives feel important in our journey to understanding our own family history.

Oral history provides important historical information

While it is true that an individual’s recollection of events can differ from what we might be able to discover through other research avenues, the oral history does help create a fuller, richer family history than would exist otherwise. In this way, oral history does provide us with factual and important historical information.

From a genealogical perspective, oral family histories can also provide clues about new places to look for records and documents that can help us learn more about our families.

For example, I was recently re-reading a document prepared by a cousin, who was a first cousin twice-removed to me. In his document, he mentioned that his aunt remembered that her father, my great-great grandfather, a Slovak immigrant to the United States, always enjoyed visiting Wappinger Falls, New York, whenever he could get the opportunity.

While my cousin, who did his research in the 1990s, could never discover a family connection to this part of New York, or determine why this town was so important to my great-great grandfather, I was able to use modern technology and digital records to make good progress on the mystery. If it had not been for an oral history that my cousin documented, taken from my great-great aunt, I would not have known that there was something to discover in this place.

Oral history is especially important to indigenous communities

There is a tendency for those from Western cultures to focus only on written documents and to disregard history that has not been written down and is only told verbally. This has, unfortunately, led many people to view cultures that don’t have a long tradition of documenting their history using Western methods as not actually having a documented history.

Nothing can be further from the truth, of course. In fact, there are many cultures that have long-practiced traditions of story-telling for the purpose of passing down knowledge of ancestry and history.

Apart from teaching younger community members about their history and ancestry, it is also an important way to maintain cultural and linguistic traditions. For many communities around the world, and right here in North and South America, oral history is of utmost importance and it is done with exceptional skill.

Many genealogists and historians in Western traditions tend to view historical information that is written down as more factual and accurate than oral histories. Those of us who are experienced genealogist researchers know that not everything that is written down is true – just read this Reddit thread about the Millennium File, the compilation of often unreliable family history records that some people use as sources for their family trees.

I could give dozens of examples of mistakes and errors that I have seen written down in books, family trees, census records, and even vital records. These mistakes can often send us searching in the wrong direction for information!

Oral histories are a primary historical source that we should value as a source just as accurate, important, and vital as any other type of record that can be used to learn about one’s family history.

How to document your oral family history

One things that we can all do is to help preserve our oral family history. Every conversation, interview or story that we can document for the future will help us, and future researchers, piece together parts of history that may have been lost otherwise.

When considering how to go about documenting oral history through interviews with family members, there are four elements that you should consider: preparation for your research, interviews with family members, how you will preserve the information, and how others will be able to access your research.

To prepare for your interview, you will want to decide beforehand the questions that you will ask. It goes without saying that you should at least take notes, or even make a recording.

You might also consider talking to the relatives that you will interview to see if they are comfortable with the way you would like to document the interview and the access that you will give to others. Sometimes sensitive topics are discussed during family history interviews, and your relatives might not feel comfortable if the entire recording is distributed en masse to your entire extended family.

Of course, if you wish to record interviews with anyone, you should always get permission first. Many jurisdictions have laws pertaining to the recording of conversations, and it is also important to respect the privacy and wishes of our relatives.

When deciding how other relatives, both now and in the future, might obtain access to your research, including the oral history that you have documented, you should consider privacy aspects. Some oral histories might discuss younger relatives, and so there may be a valid reason for waiting a certain number of years before allowing wider access.

The following articles provide ideas for how to conduct family history interviews and questions that you might ask:


I hope that this post has helped you learn about the importance of oral history, and has given you some ideas about how you can help preserve your family’s oral history for future generations.

If you have any questions about something that you have read in this post, or if you want to share something that you learned through listening to a family story, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.

Thanks for reading today!

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