Best practices for collecting memories/life story from an elderly person
November 6, 2016 11:53 AM   Subscribe

My grandfather has a fascinating life story, maybe even the stuff historical dramas are made of. In the past few years he made a serious attempt to write it all down, but his efforts were thwarted by a computer crash. He has not started again because his wife doesn't want him to overexert himself. Now his memory is starting to slip, and one of our concerns is getting his history written down before it's lost forever.

He is unwilling to speak into a recorder, and his wife doesn't want him typing away at the computer. He would likely be amenable to being interviewed--if recording devices weren't prominently in his face-- but his kids live far enough away to make regular visits impossible. We made a brief foray into recording a phone call, with his permission, but the resulting recording was too faint to work with for reasons unknown.

If we had money, we would hire a ghostwriter to work with him for a couple of hours each day. Is there any way of accomplishing this that we haven't thought of?
posted by Soliloquy to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Would he and his wife be ok with him using a voice to text computer software like Dragon? If typing is the issue, it could be a solution. Make sure he's got an automatic cloud back-up system set up so crashes aren't an issue going forward.
posted by quince at 12:01 PM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's quite easy to record a phone call if you have a smart phone and use an app called "Call Recorder." I downloaded if from the Google Play store on to an Android phone, but there should be an equivalent for iPhone. From there you can just share the file to a computer. Memail me if you need more details.
posted by tooloudinhere at 12:05 PM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Where is this? There may be a nearby university with graduate students who would be happy to train their interviewing and transcription skills, especially for a fairly nominal fee. A ghostwriter every day for a few hours would be a lot more expensive than having a graduate student in history, anthropology, sociology etc who is hard to for cash come and interview your grandfather once a week for a few hours and transcribe the interviews.

I also advise you to think about the steps and goals here. Is it writing a book? Is it preserving the memories in some way? If it's the former, that is a huge project that requires lots of smaller steps. One of the required steps is the job of getting the memories on paper in some way first anyhow, so I'd focus on the second goal and then if it turns into a book, great - if not, you still have the transcripts of the stories.
posted by sockermom at 12:17 PM on November 6, 2016

It's probably a long shot, but if he lives anywhere near San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, or Columbia, SC then you could schedule an interview with StoryCorps. They don't conduct the interview, a friend or family member does, but they do provide a recording booth and preserve all stories for posterity. It wouldn't be long enough to encompass an entire life, but could still be a rewarding experience. They also provide an app that can be used to record and share interviews. They've got a number of interesting questions to help guide the discussion. For this Thanksgiving, StoryCorps is encouraging high school students to record an interview with their grandparents. Regardless of your age, maybe you could do the same?

Is Skype or some other video chat available? You could just have a conversation with your grandfather (perhaps using some questions prepared in advance) and record everything on your end.

Alternatively, does he have any affiliation with a university or library that might be interested in his stories? You could look into setting up an interview with an oral history center.

Previewing the responses above, I think deciding what the ultimate goal of the project is great advice. A book may be ambitious, but the recordings and transcripts of a few key stories could be something that is cherished by your family for years down the line. I can't remember what some of my family members sounded like any more, and I wish I had some way to bring their stories back to life. Good luck!
posted by scottdavidsanders at 12:32 PM on November 6, 2016

He would likely be amenable to being interviewed--if recording devices weren't prominently in his face

I have recorded spoken word and interviews with a little handheld device that is relatively unobtrusive. As in, set it on a table, make sure that it's doing what you want it to do, and then it's out of anyone's face and just part of the background scenery.

My gizmo is an Olympus LS-11, which is no longer made, although it has been replaced by newer models. There are other manufacturers who make similar products. On Amazon, you can find different makes/models under the category Electronics > Portable Audio & Video > Digital Voice Recorders.
posted by compartment at 1:48 PM on November 6, 2016

do you still have the computer? depending on the details of the "crash" it's possible that whatever he wrote is till on the disk and could be extracted.
posted by andrewcooke at 1:50 PM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

To answer some questions, Sockermom, he's in Pennsylvania in a college town, so I will definitely look into your suggestion of finding a graduate student to conduct interviews. He was a professor, so I think he would respond well to that.

Yes, his original goal was a book. He had been doing his own research (he was a historian, so I do not use that word lightly) and had six chapters completed, but the computer crash left him unwilling to begin the entire project again. (Though he is amenable to recounting stories when asked, now we're worried about not asking the right questions, and how long he'll be able to do even that.)

I appreciate your advice to focus on collecting the stories first and worrying about the other aspects later; you're absolutely right.

scottdavidsanders, StoryCorps did have an event in Pittsburgh, but I doubt he would have been able to travel to it. I'll look into their other offerings, though, including the Thanksgiving project. Thank you!

compartment, thank you for the equipment advice. I am not sure whether a small device left on the coffee table would be unobtrusive enough to be acceptable to him. Would it work without him needing to wear a microphone?

andrewcooke, the computer crash happened a few years ago, so I doubt the hard drive is still in his possession. I'll ask, though.

Thank you all for your advice, please keep it coming!
posted by Soliloquy at 2:26 PM on November 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Would it work without him needing to wear a microphone?

I sat next to a lady who recorded all of the lectures we had in a class in college, and having heard one of the recordings I can say that there are digital recorders able to pick up the voice of an older man speaking at an unamplified, lecture level of volume across half of a moderately sized classroom without anyone needing to wear a microphone. I don't know what she had exactly, but perhaps popular lecture recorders are the right tool for the job?

I'd imagine it'd be fairly easy to put the microphone somewhere out of sight if it's self-consciousness at work here. If you're sitting at a distance like a kitchen table, a breast pocket of a shirt should work nicely with a proper recorder.
posted by neonrev at 10:09 PM on November 6, 2016

with an inexpensive but good microphone and a minidisc recorder, i could here whispers through walls - if you can interview him in the room, you can easily secrete your recording device somewhere he can't see or know it. Tech has moved on a lot in the ten years since then. Phones remove most of the voice frequencies
posted by maiamaia at 9:30 AM on November 7, 2016

Olympus makes a reasonable range of digital voice recorders that transfer as MP3s via USB. When I was recording counseling sessions for supervision, I would just put the recorder on a side desk slightly out of the patient's line of sight. The Olympus ones are generally about 2/3 the size of a remote control.
posted by catlet at 9:34 AM on November 7, 2016

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