Field Notes

The Process of Recollecting

Anyone can gather stories from the loved ones, elders and influencers in their lives. With some curiousity and a mobile phone most folks can preserve the stories that matter.

Click that arrow above to hear what all these words sound like. Go ahead. You know you want to.

The phone part is easy: Mobile phones are owned by 96% of Americans. Smart phone ownership hovers somewhere north of 80%. Recording on a cell phone alone may not net you the best audio possible, but it can be quite good if you sequester you and your subject in a quiet space.

When I gather someone’s recollections of a life or a time I do some basic planning. After a client agrees to proceed, I schedule a pre-recording planning meeting. This get-together allows me to meet with my client. Together, we identify and clarify our interview topics, and craft those questions that will elicit the stories we want to capture.

Gathering peoples’ recollections has, of necessity, changed in the coronavirus era.

Before we all sheltered in place, my recording process generally involved some travel. Most recordings I’ve done with my business are in private homes. Once arrived, I’d set-up my kit. The kit includes a portable recorder with a pair of microphones cabled to it; One mic for the clients, the other for me.

My earmuff-style headphones let me hear just the audio being captured by the microphones. We silence all phones, turn off the noise-makers in the house – fridge, furnace, ice-maker – and set to work. One by one I ask the questions that the client and I wrote together during our pre-recording meeting. I ask in advance if it is okay to go off script and probe if a certain area seems like fertile ground for good stories. Folks generally agree to that request.

BOOM! Add the coronavirus to the mix and you have a new challenge to be addressed: how to gather recollections in a socially distant manner?

Face-to-face, in-person interviews are temporarily verboten. As a work-around, I have recently done socially distant recordings using Skype and Recordator. Both provide more than adequate audio. I hear Zoom meetings are also recordable, but have not recorded via that platform. Yet.

I write about all this now because I feel some urgency to gather stories that matter. I feel urgency because people around me are dying. The world is going to come out of the other end of the coronavirus with less people. Many less people. All those people are full of stories worth being told and preserved. When we die our stories die with us and in 2020 living at the peak of civilization as we do, well, this just does not have to be so.

Maybe you have someone who has been significant in your life. (I would hope so.) Have you spoken with them lately? Have you ever thought of asking them to let you record their life story? What about a memory of a significant time? These memoirs don’t have to be lengthy discussions or require an elaborate recording set-up. The stories you want to gather can be collected in multiple sessions.

If someone you know has a story that matters to you, I encourage you to sit down and gather these recollections now while you still can. I share all this because I truly want to democratize folks collecting stories from those they love.

Earlier I noted some services that can help you record your stories that matter. There are many existing online resources that can help you collect recollections of your parents and grandparents, your siblings and cousins, your neighbors and business partners, among others. Great guidance on interview tips and sound quality come from StoryCorps. The Oral History Association has a free guide for introducing oral histories into classroom settings. Getting explicit permission to record someone is always a good practice. Here’s a sample consent from the oral history program of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

If you need some questions to use as a conversation stimulator, check out this list of 50 questions from the Dallas Jewish Historical Society.

Now, go get those stories. This day, this week, this month are great times to do so. You probably have some additional free time right now.

If I can ever help advise on a recording session, I am glad to help. Contact me at or call me on my landline at (816) 514-5146 and leave a message.

By Trevor Harris

I got involved in community radio back in 1990 and later worked in public radio. I enjoy listening to people's stories. Collecting them seemed like a logical marriage of my love of audio gathering and preserving the stories of those around me.

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