Preserving Family Stories

Paige Collins is a 2020 graduate of the University of Georgia and was a Junior Fellow in the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement.  Watch Paige talk about her experience at the Library in this short video

When we look over the events of the last several months, there is no doubt that we are living in extraordinary times. From a global pandemic to a more widespread consciousness of the need for racial justice in America, we have found ourselves in the middle of one of history’s big moments. The memories we are making each and every day will become part of the collective historical consciousness, and maybe even the written historical record. One silver lining of our current situation is the opportunity to spend more time with our families. We thought that families might like to use some of that extra time to share their memories with each other. During my time as a junior fellow at the Library of Congress, I created a new activity for families to do together about preserving stories through oral history, which you can find on our webpage for families.

Oral history is a method of learning about the past through interviews with people who experienced it directly. They can be well-known people or people you know personally. The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress was created to “preserve and present American folklife,” and its archive includes many oral history collections and personal conversations. The activity features interview clips from the library’s vast collections of firsthand historical accounts, including remembrances recorded through the Civil Rights History project, the Veterans History Project and the Occupational Folklife Project, which chronicles the lives of contemporary American workers from various industries including mining and home healthcare. StoryCorps, the fourth collection highlighted in the activity, is a mobile memory-sharing endeavor where families from across the country sit down and share their stories with each other for archiving at the Library. The activity includes suggestions for how to conduct an oral history interview and sample questions to spark conversation such as:

Questions for parents:

Mother and daughter inside a recording booth for StoryCorps

Inside the StoryCorps booth, July 31, 2010. Flickr user rochelle hartman via Creative Commons.

  • How did you choose my name?
  • What was I like as a baby?
  • What were the hardest moments you had when I was growing up?
  • What are your dreams for me?

Questions for grandparents:

  • What was Mom/Dad like growing up?
  • Do you remember any songs that you used to sing to her/him? Can you sing them now?
  • What were your parents like?
  • How would you like to be remembered?

Questions for veterans:

  • Can you tell me about when you went into the military?
  • How did your military service experiences affect your life?
  • What would you like people to know or remember from your story?
  • What do you wish more people knew about veterans?

The activity ends with examples of how writers have used oral history collections at the Library and interviews with their own family members in their work.

Whether the memories your family stories recall include large scale historical events, intimate personal reflections, or somewhere in the middle, we think those stories are worth sharing. We hope to help your family feel better connected to each other, and that this might help your children learn more about history through family stories and understand that history comes from people, and not just from books. If you can’t come to the Library for now, we want to bring the Library to you, and help you find the hidden treasures that we all keep in our memories.

One Comment

  1. Diana G
    September 8, 2020 at 7:56 am

    Around baby name deciding time, my dad, a now-retired Library of Congress cataloger, happened to receive a book about Princess Diana on his desk. He took the name home to my mom, and there was no question that I would be Diana. Library Lore! Thanks for the memory-sparking question, Minerva’s Kaleidoscope!

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