Imagine popping your head into the attic of your childhood home and finding a box overflowing with recordings, photos, documents, and diaries compiled by relatives who have long passed. Congratulations: you’ve won the family history lottery.
Even if no such stash has been left behind for you, you can easily become the person who starts documenting family stories and events for curious progeny to discover one day. We’ve listed the best tools to capture your family history—from fill-in-the-blank workbooks to decent recording tools for saving audio and video.
Grab a notebook
Table of Contents
For starters, you might want a book to record historical facts and connections you discover in your research and conversations.
One simple option is the Genealogy Organizer, a notebook to record facts like vital statistics and family connections with space for photos and notes. It’s a portable size (6×9 inches) with 100 pages for records and additional pages for notes.
For a little more guidance, try the Family Tree Workbook: 30+ Step-by-Step Worksheets to Build Your Family History. It’s the starting point for a heftier research project you can work on with other family members both older and younger than you are.
Record your relatives’ voices
You probably already have the only tool you need to start recording conversations (with proper legal consent, of course): your phone. Congratulations, you are a documentarian.
If you’re recording an in-person conversation, just center the phone between you and your subject(s) and start recording through the Voice Memo app on your iPhone. Android phones have a similar built-in audio recording app called Recorder or Voice Recorder, depending on your phone. To up your audio quality a little more, try a wireless lapel mic like the Maybesta Professional Wireless Lavalier Lapel Microphone.
Recording phone calls is trickier. Because phones can’t record a call in progress (and apps that claim to are unreliable), you probably need one device to make the call and a second device to record. Ethically, it’s nice to inform the person you are talking to that the conversation is being recorded, but it’s not always legally required. Check here to see what’s required by law in your state.
If you find yourself recording a lot of audio, you might want to pick up a separate digital recorder like the Sony ICD-PX370 Mono Digital Voice Recorder. It has space for 59 hours of recorded audio and room for an SD card if you need more. Transfer your recordings with the built-in USB.
Capture video too
If you want to record the look on Dad’s face when he talks about returning to his hometown after hitchhiking across the country, your phone will, again, do the trick. For face-to-face interviews, at least set up a small, flexible tripod so you are not fumbling with the phone.
You may also want to record videos when speaking to family members long-distance. Zoom, Skype, and Google Meet all support recording calls as a basic feature. You can also use these apps to record audio, if your family member doesn’t want video recorded for whatever reason.
Apps for recording memories
StoryCorps (available for Apple and Android)
You may recognize StoryCorps, the NPR staple that has been helping people record and share their stories for 20 years. The free app will help you with interview guidance and recording instructions. You have the option to add photos and keywords to your stories and save to your device or upload recordings to the StoryCorps Archive, which is administered by the Library of Congress.
Storycatcher (available for Apple, $4.99)
Feel like a real filmmaker when you record, edit, and share your work with others. The app comes with story prompts for your interviews and includes access to learning modules that teach you the whole process from interview tips to adding music and captions.
Remento (free for Apple phones)
Remento also includes prompts and recording tools for capturing conversations with family members. The spirit of Remento is to deepen connections with family members in the present by recording their stories and personalities as you discuss memories. Your recordings are stored locally on your device, and you decide who to share with.
More resources for starting conversations
“Tell me your life story” would be an overwhelming prompt at the start of your family history journey. Take advantage of StoryCorps’ experience by choosing some options from their list of great questions. It includes interview questions sorted by topic like raising children, religion, working, love and relationships. Compile your questions in advance and consider giving your interviewee a preview so they can give it some thought.
Even if you’re not interested in DNA tests or going down the rabbit hole of deep family genealogy, consider browsing Ancestry.com with a 14-day trial. Browsing genealogy and DNA records with a family member should elicit some stories. If that doesn’t work, try their conversation prompts to get conversation rolling.
If you do get the itch to look more deeply into your family’s genealogy, check out the National Archives for research tips.
Tips for getting reticent family members to open up
You might get a few strange looks or “no, thanks” when you start asking relatives to share stories. For family members who are hesitant to be recorded or clam up face to face, try these sideways approaches to uncovering family history:
- Ask them to help the kids with a family tree project. Every kid does one eventually. Let that be your opportunity to sneak in some questions about Great Aunt Beulah.
- Give them a guided journal they can respond to in private, at their own pace. There are many versions of this concept, like the Tell Me Your Life Story series. You can even create your own guided journal by taking the questions from resources above and adding them to a blank notebook.
- Try a service like Storyworth. It’s an investment—for $99 you get a year of weekly story prompts emailed to your family member and one printed book that compiles all the stories and photos. You can also buy additional copies of the book. This is ideal if you have a family member who dreams of writing a book, but needs some encouragement. They will receive one email per week and can respond in their own time. Everything is compiled at the end of the year. You get to choose what questions are sent each week.
Finally, when you go in search of family stories, don’t leave out your own generation. Cousins and siblings may have different recollections of events you consider canon, and they can be great co-conspirators for getting parents and grandparents to open up.