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  • Preserving Family Heritage on Videotape

    Louis R. Woodhill

    Published Date : April-May 1990
    Genealogy depends upon records from the past.  For those of us for whom family heritage is important, the question arises: “What kind of records should we construct now to leave for our descendants?” I submit that some of the most valuable resources we can leave to future generations are videotaped interviews with parents, grandparents, and older members of our families.

    Videotaped interviews are qualitatively different from other methods of preserving family history. While written accounts can tell us facts about our ancestors, and photographs can show how they looked, a videotaped interview allows us to experience something of who they are (or were).  After watching a comprehensive television interview of a person you have never met, you will find that you have a kind of relationship with him.  He (or she) lives in your thoughts as someone you know.  If you watch network television, you may be familiar with a sense of “knowing” someone (e.g. George Bush) whom you have seen only on screen.  You have never met this person, but he is not a stranger.

    Imagine watching a 90-minute videotaped interview with an ancestor from, say, the Revolutionary War period.  Videotaped recordings played back on television appear “live.”  Thus you would not experience any passage of time between the making and viewing of the recording, although from your ancestor’s attire or manner of speaking you might easily infer it.  You would see your ancestor in front of you and hear him describe or suggest his (or her) family history, life story, beliefs, values, interests, ambitions, predictions of future events, perhaps even advice and wishes for future generations - including you!  If you can visualize such an event, you will have a sense of the gift that we can now leave to future generations.

    With proper care, todays video recordings can have a very long life, perhaps hundreds of years. Within a decade digital video technologies may become widely available.  These processes will permit recordings to be copied without signal loss, so that in effect it will not matter if our current video formats (e.g. VHS) are supplanted by new systems.  Families will simply transfer their recordings to the new format -- just as old home movies on film are being transferred to VHS today.

    Not just a priceless gift to posterity, videotaped interviews of parents and grandparents are fascinating to make and watch today.  Hearing the subject’s recorded words accompanied by a television close-up of his or her face can lend an intimacy or concentration seldom achieved in real life. Also, watching an interview on video frees us from the worry of what we intend to say next, and lets us concentrate on the subject. Interviews often reveal much about a subject that even close family members did not previously realize.

    With todays home video equipment, interviews can be easy, fun, and inexpensive to produce. Ownership is unnecessary, since video cameras can usually be borrowed or rented.  Videotape recordings are easily duplicated, so every interested member of a family can be given copies of the interview.  These copies are wonderful (and inexpensive) presents, for grandchildren especially, and such dissemination also insures that the interview will not be quickly lost or destroyed.

    A comprehensive interview with an adult about his or her life generally takes 60 to 90 minutes, but can go longer.  The key to a good interview is the script, which should contain 90 to 100 carefully prepared questions and be suitable for a stranger.  No questions should reflect a family’s knowledge of the subject, since future generations may not share such information.

    During the last four years home video cameras have progressed from rare “high-tech” toys to almost universal availability.  There are now about 9 million consumer video cameras in the United States, theoretically enough to undertake 90-minute videotaped interviews of all the nation’s 45 million grandparents in less than a day.  Many American families, perhaps even a majority, now either own a video camera, know a friend or relative who has one, or can rent one conveniently.

    Could the existence of all these video cameras, over time, transform the experience of belonging to a family?  Imagine for a moment each of us watching 90-minute videotape interviews with our 254 immediate ancestors (extending seven generations).  I must believe that such an experience would profoundly affect our views of ourselves and our families.  Family historians living today have an opportunity to make this experience available to future generations by interviewing on videotape all living parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.  It is exciting to realize that we are now at the leading edge of a major advance in the preservation of family heritage.  The real age of family video has begun.

    Louis R. Woodhill created The Grandparent’s Video Interview Kit, available for $34.95 from Living Family Albums, 25935 Detroit Rd., Suite 294, Westlake, OH 44145, (216) 892-6826.

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