1940 Census and an interview with Mama

Printouts from the 1940 census and recorders I used to capture my mother's memories from 1940. [contains iPad info] My Mama pointed to a name on the page of the 1940 census. “This is the boy who – at age 9 – told me the facts of life.”

She pointed to another name. “This was the best teacher I ever had. Ever. And I had some good teachers.”

Her fingers traced a triangle shape on the map where two streets intersected. “This is where we played baseball. There were only two bases. See? First base, Second base, Home.”

These are some of the stories that came out when I interviewed Mama about her memories of growing up. I used the 1940 Census as an oral history question generator and memory sparker.

This article is my description of what I did to use the 1940 Census as the inspiration for an oral history interview. I describe it all – from finding the census pages, to working with printing out image data, to what I used for my audio setup, to interview techniques, to a listing of all the topics discussed, to some iPad file transfer tricks and lessons learned.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on April 19, 2012 in • GenealogyInterviewingPersonal
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Mailbag Q & A: I want to interview my parents. Does that mean I think they’re at death’s door?

Microphone in a coffin
“Mom? Dad? I’d like to visit you and record stories of our family history. I want to ask you questions about your experiences. I want to hear your memories.”

Does that statement sound like the person is saying “I know you’re getting older and I’m afraid you’re going to die really soon” or does it sound like “I want to know what you know.”?

Reader John Beatty wrote me and asked this question:

I bought an Edirol R09 audio recorder 2 years ago with the intent of recording some family history when I visit my parents back in Michigan. You wouldn’t believe the grief one of my friends gave me about the project! I’ve been advised that recording your parents is tantamount to telling your aging parents that you fear they’re about to die so you want to get everything on tape before they kick the bucket. Do you have any advice for folks like me who want to learn more family history but don’t want to seem like a circling vulture?


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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on February 08, 2009 in • Do it: Yourself
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My (our) StoryCorps Adventure

image Last Saturday I finally did what I’d wanted to do for two years – experience what it’s like to conduct a StoryCorps in-booth interview. I wanted to sit in one of those cool AirStream trailers, complete with the facilitator and the two microphones, sit across from someone whose stories I want to hear, and leave with one of the two audio CDs that are created during that time (the other CD goes to the Library of Congress).

Mix one part logistics (or how to find the StoryCorps booth and why you should arrive extra-extra early) with one part Los Angeles Parks department malaise, with another part tech geekery, with two parts interviews, and another part Olvera Street visit (first time in 50 years!), and a ton of pictures, and you’ve got our day.

Alternate titles for this story could be: “The Kitchens Family’s Excellent Adventure,” or “The Out of Towners,” or “No country Recreation Department building for old men…or young boys.”

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on January 29, 2008 in • InterviewingPersonal HistoryStoryCorps
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Notes on a first interview

Interviewing. People in Conversations Reader Daria of Missoula, Montana, stopped by the site to say that she’d bought a recorder that she saw mentioned here – the Zoom H2 Handy recorder. Her first report was: “I LOVE IT. OK – granted I’ve only had it for a week….but I think it’s great. Thanks! My dad was the first test.”

So I asked her some questions about how its use was, first time around. Here are my questions and her responses.

Susan: Have you ever done any recording before?

Daria: No

Susan: Describe the steps you took to conduct that first interview of your Dad

Daria: Wrote out questions (which I didn’t really follow – but was a good starting point. Made sure baby was occupied (quiet). Just started. Definetely room for improvement.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on December 22, 2007 in • Interviewing
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My recording kit (and how I chose it)

imageMy audio recording setup was recently featured on the Genealogy Guys podcast, and I’ve long wanted to describe it here. Why haven’t I? In order to follow the course of a story of weighing this or that feature, one must have an understanding of the feature in the first place. So I’ve had to lay some groundwork. I’ve written an article on analog and digital, and have been working on the Equipment Guide to all the different items in a portable audio setup.

Now I’ll revisit, once again, the twists and turns of making my decision, and the factors that led me to buy what I did. Of course, that was in April of 2006. Since then, several new audio recorders have come out. Though my the reasons for my decision are worth examining, I don’t know that I’d come to the exact same conclusions in June, 2007 as I did in April 2006. But I’ll tell you about my list of “must haves” and the factors I considered.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on June 28, 2007 in • AudioAudio: Hardware
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Letters from the Attic: 1918 Flu Epidemic Edition

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[click to enlarge]

December, 1918. The nation is in the midst of the flu epidemic. My grandmother Florence and her sister Doris are both living in Boston, far from home–Billings, Montana. Doris caught a cold and wrote about it to Mama. I have the reply; it’s a letter from Mama and clipping from page 2 of the Billings Gazette. It provides a glimpse to us, 89 years later, of what surviving the flu was like. Including how, exactly, Vick’s VapoRub works.

The letter, dated Dec 10, 1918, begins thus:

Stapleton Bldg
Billings, Mont
Dec 10, 1918.

Dear Girls,
Both your letters came today. I was sorry to hear of Doris’ cold and also worried. Why didn’t you use the Vaporub as I told you? I have never known it to fail to break up the “flu” and it has also cured pneumonia. It is just as it is spelled Vapo rub, Doris asked once how to pronounce it.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on April 15, 2007 in • Letters in the AtticPersonal History
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Ringing in the New Year with some Resolve

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My new year’s resolutions come in two parts– things I personally resolve to do with my own family history, and things I resolve to do on this website. Ideas for personal resolutions come from that inner nagging or cringe sensation (why is it nag and cringe rather than simple drooling?), and ideas for the site came from a fabulous afteroon this past week brainstorming with a friend about this website. Disclaimer: I don’t know if all of these are resolutions, but here’s my ongoing To-Do list.

Interview Dad. I’m going to sit down with my Dad and interview him. (I’ve done some interviewing of Mom this last year – you mighta seen the 3 minute movie I made from a story my Mom told me.) I interviewed my Mom last Mother’s Day, but I’m not going to wait until Father’s Day to interview my Dad. I did show him the forms and materials for the Veterans’ History Project, so he’s got an idea of what we’ll talk about.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on December 31, 2006 in • AfterwardsDo it: YourselfGenealogyHousekeepingPersonal History
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“I’m so glad you did this. So glad.”

Doc M's mom with her dorm mates at UCLA in the 1940s

Those are the words my boyfriend Doc M said to me as we listened to his mother talk about her life. Two years ago, I recorded an interview with her. Three nights ago, we heard that recording for the first time since I– well, we– made it.

My boyfriend’s mother went into the hospital in early October. She died two weeks later, on October 19.

(This story, in addition to saying something about recording family oral history, is also an explanation why there’s been so little activity on this site recently.)

Over the weekend, Doc M worked on a first draft of the eulogy for his mother’s memorial.

Now, Doc M is an engineer; what comes naturally to him is stuff like reading over my article on analog and digital and then saying, “wait a second. I don’t know if that illustration is correct.” We google the mathematical algorithm for digitizing, and he– right then and there– jots it down, and starts working through the math. Just like that! I’m amazed. But writing? No, that’s what I do. He’s often said, “I’m not a writer.”

But he is a son, and there’s a eulogy that must be written.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on October 30, 2006 in • AfterwardsPersonal History
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On digital formats: the audio CD player graveyard

O Brother CD in CD TrayOver the weekend, my first audio CD player (born 1985) went to the recyclers/electronic waste disposal people. I used it from 1985 to about 1999, and attempted to give it a second life at the family cabin. The persistent failure of the mechanism that opens and closes the disk tray killed it (despite one successful repair attempt). So it went bye-bye.

Why is this event worthy of note here on this site? My audio CDs are good only if there’s a device that will play them. The end-of-life of an early CD Audio player stands as a signpost: It’s a marker of the time that’s transpired since the format was invented, the popularity of that format, and a warning of the risks we take when we store our stuff on Audio CD disk media.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on September 20, 2006 in • AudioDigitalityLongevity
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My Mother tells me about HER mother

On Mother’s day, I talked with my mother… about her mother. My grandma went to Massachussets Institute of Technology and graduated in 1920. She was a whiz at calculus.



(if you can’t see the movie, Click to Watch the Video )

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on July 29, 2006 in • Personal History
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First things first: Analog and Digital

I took a break from tax prep to research and purchase a solid-state digital recorder (and a microphone and some cables). I had narrowed my choice down, but at the last minute, I veered in another direction and bought a digital recorder with a 20 GB hard disk.

Throughout that long afternoon of research, I felt as though I was EveryShopper, caught in the tug of war between the eminently reasonable “Just tell me what I need to get!” and the ever-hateful “Well, it depends on what you want to do.” (ever-hateful, but correct, dangit!) As I weighed this feature and that aspect, I thought, “Ah! I’ll write an article about making this decision and put it on the website.”

But once I began scribbling the permutations of feature A versus feature R that were a part of my decision-making, I realized that I would first need to write about portable recorders in general. No. Wait a second. While we’re getting into first-things-first, I think I’d best define “analog” and “digital” and get that out of the way. (Plus, I’m thinking I’ll probably need to create a glossary for this site.) I’ve spent the last couple of years researching audio matters. I find myself wishing it were simpler than it is. I hope that this attempt at explanation succeeds at making it a bit more straightforward. So here’s Purchase Decision, part 1: Analog and Digital.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on April 30, 2006 in • AudioDigitality
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How it all began

My grandfather, sitting at the dining table where we recorded stories on the little battery-operated cassette recorder with a built-in microphone The idea for this site got its start about 6 years ago from a scrappy little cassette recorder with a built-in microphone and a battery compartment door held shut by a band-aid. That cassette recorder–along with several blank tapes and spare batteries– was given to my grandfather on his 99th birthday by his son. “Dad, use this to tell stories about what you’ve experienced in your lifetime,” my uncle said. Three and a half weeks after that birthday, I arrived back east to spend a few weeks with Grandpa in the dead of winter (He lived alone in a house in upstate New York). One night, I grabbed the recorder from the shelf, popped in a tape, thumbed the red record button down, and said, “Okay Grandpa, what is the meaning of life?”

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 07, 2006 in • GeneralPersonal
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iPod Hacking Adventures, part 1

In search of a new-old recording tool: iPod as digital recorder. In which we try to adapt an iPod, 2G to record using Linux. And fail. And learn some new things. Chiefly: This method only works for a 3G iPod only.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on October 11, 2005 in • AudioAudio: Hardware
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