How do you capture a lifetime of memories?

Every family has unique stories that deserve preservation. Find out how to gather and document those stories.

Two elderly people posing for a photo with a young child.
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Have you ever been completely engaged in a story so much that you didn’t pay attention to what was going on around you? Stories can teach us and entertain us. It is important to note that education is oftentimes the purpose of storytelling. Many cultures have utilized storytelling as a mode of communication to educate community members on history, experiences, and spirituality. There may be a specific season, time of year, or a place when stories are allowed to be told.

Collecting those stories is very important to understand our own culture, and the culture of others. Interviewing can be a great way to capture those stories. Michigan State University Extension provides some steps for starting the interview process.


Before jumping into an interview, it is important to plan ahead. Here are few considerations to get started.

  • Think about your purpose for the interview. Do you want to learn about family or local history? Or a particular historical event? A particular skill or talent? Or better understand someone’s culture?  
  • Who might have the knowledge you are looking for? You might have to ask several people to determine who you want to interview.
  • Reach out to the person you wish to interview and explain the purpose of the interview. Arrange a time to meet.
  • Decide what you will use to collect the story. This can be as simple as writing things down, using a fillable form, or creating a recording. It can be helpful to both record and write down.  
  • Test your equipment before your interview. 
    • Determine how far away from the device both the interviewer and the interviewee can be and still be heard.
    • How much time can your recording device hold? An interview could take about an hour and that might take a lot of space.
    • If you are writing, make sure you have back-up writing utensils.
    • Note, some technology has automatic text-to-speech capability, which can make organizing and searching through information much simpler. You may wish to investigate and test this before your interview.
  • Plan for conducting the interview.
  • In-person or virtual interviewing both have positives and negatives. Virtual interviewing can be done with someone who lives far away, but some people might not be as comfortable with the technology. In-person interviewing may require more travel time, but you can read body language and there may be physical items in the location of the interview which can trigger memories and lead to more discussion.
  • If you are recording, be aware of background noises that might occur. If there are noisy people, pets or machines, it can make things difficult. Fans, air conditioners, TVs, trains and traffic can all interfere with the audio.  
  • Do you wish to interview one person or several? Multiple people can play off each other, and their memories increase with the interaction. But it can be difficult to tell who says what and difficult to record answers. Sometimes an individual can feel more at ease with another person there.
  • Make sure everyone is comfortable. People might want something to drink if they are talking for a long time, or they might need a tissue to cry on. You want to consider safety as well, and discuss whether wearing masks may be appropriate.


Now that you know the who, when, where and how of your interview, it is time to get started! Here are additional steps to optimizing the interview process.

  • Decide on your questions. You can use our list of ideas for questions
  • Gather consent. Before you share a person’s stories, it is very important to get permission to use those stories and that you document that permission. Consent is important because historically, some people’s stories have been used without their permission. Some individuals have profited off another person’s stories, and not shared that profit with the originator of the story. If you have ever read Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Gilderoy Lockhart is an example of someone who has profited off another person’s stories.
    • Collecting consent can be included in the recording of your interview or with a written form. If you are recording, ask the person, “Do I have permission to record this interview and use your name and the information you provide for nonprofit, educational purposes?” Then ask them to share their name and the date of the interview.      
  • Conduct the interview.
  • Start with the name, date and location of the interview. Ask the person you are interviewing what they would like to be called.
  • It is important to have questions prepared. If you don’t get to all of them, that is okay. Don’t worry about the order of questions. If you need to move around because it flows better, that is okay.
  • Even if recording, have pencil and paper so you can write down another idea for a question without interrupting them. You can also emphasize certain points in your notes.
  • Don’t correct people if they get information wrong. Just let them share the story as they remember it and listen.
  • Some stories might be painful to remember. Many people have had very difficult times in their lives and discussing it can be tough. If someone is hesitant to talk about a particular subject, don’t push it. You can ask more questions on another day.
  • Silence is okay. Sometimes people need time to think and remember about something that happened a long time ago.
  • Before you finish, ask the person if there are any questions that should have been asked.
  • At the end of the interview, discuss how you intend to use and share the information. Thank the person for their time and set up another interview, if you wish.


Now that your interview is over, there are a few more steps to fully complete the interview process.

  • Transcribe. Converting recorded audio to written text in an electronic format can make it easier to store, copy and search later. If you want to recall a particular part of the conversation, you can search for a few key words in the document rather than listen to the entire recording. There are several apps and software available to do this, however even the best software usually needs double-checking.
  • Share. Stories are powerful. By sharing stories, you can extend the legacy of a person. If you gather the stories and keep them to yourself, it limits the impact those stories have on the world. Stories can be shared in a family history, as part of a school or 4-H project, or with a local museum. You may want to give a copy of your project back to the person you interviewed. You should also write a thank-you note.


Discuss the interview with your club, 4-H leader, or another person. How was this person’s life different and similar from yours? What questions do you want to ask now that the interview is over? What surprised you? What lessons can you learn from their stories?


People in many different careers must conduct interviews to gather information. People working in news and entertainment for print, television, radio, or internet often interview others. Those working in the justice system must interview to learn about when crimes are committed. Historians learn about the past through interviews. Anyone working in a new career can learn a lot about their job by interviewing someone with more experience.


The interview could be conducted as part of a public event or a club meeting, or it could be shared online.

Other great resources include:

This article was inspired by and adapted from the 4-H Folkpatterns curriculum. This curriculum is available online. You may also be interested in the 4-H Folkpatterns Leaders Guide or the 4-H Foodways: a 4-H Folkpatterns Project.

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