Suggestions on how to record your own family history and traditions by catching family stories
Catching Family Stories

"Every death is like the burning of a library." - Alex Haley


Alex Haley (1921 - 1992), author of the best-selling novel Roots, was a collector, creator, and above all, a story catcher and story teller. As he searched for his African-American ancestral roots, he followed the clues contained in oral history related by his family elders. From these beginnings, he spun a compelling narrative that started with a young man captured in Africa by slave traders and brought to the harbor in Annapolis, Maryland where he was put on the auction block and sold to a plantation owner. The best-selling novel -- and mini-series made from the novel-- tell the African slave's story and that of his descendants from freedom to enslavement and on to emancipation. Who knew family history could be so entertaining and lucrative?


If Haley had not been curious, if he had failed to be a catcher of stories told by grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles, the library of memories each precious person represented would have been lost with their deaths. And we wouldn't have grown to love the engrossing story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants.

We all have our own personal stories, crafted from our memories of things that have happened to us in the course of living lives that we might consider ordinary. Like Haley, we also have a family history that we can tease out if we spend time with our elders, asking them questions and listening to their memories. While we might not be interested in writing for publication, by becoming a story catcher and reducing the memories to writing, to digital recordings, or to video, we can preserve family stories and memories that would otherwise end with the deaths of members of earlier generations. We can gain insight into how historical events affected our family members. We can find out about the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents and maybe even about earlier generations. We can discover family medical conditions that might have a bearing on our own health. We can detect dysfunctional behavior patterns that have been silently handed down from generation to generation and then choose whether we want to repeat the example set by those before us.


So how do you go about becoming a story catcher for family stories? It's pretty simple, really. During family gatherings or visits to older relatives, start asking questions designed to get your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles reminiscing about the way things used to be. Holiday gatherings are particularly good times to initiate these conversations. The discussions can get lively, because inevitably people who experienced the same event will remember it differently. Each, of course, thinks his own recollection is the way it happened. In actuality, we all encode memories based on our own unique predispositions so no two people will remember the same event in exactly the same way.


If you need more guidance, check the Interview Questions page. If that still doesn't provide enough specifics, check the Oral and Written History Resources page. (If you place your cursor on the "Catching Family Stories" tab on the menu bar, you'll see a drop-down menu with these options.)