Becoming the Family Storycatcher, Step 2: Pick Your Format

Photo courtesy of .p a n e on Flicker.

Photo courtesy of .p a n e on Flicker.

Once you’ve invited a family member or loved one to share his or her life stories, you’ll immediately be faced with a crucial choice point as you prepare to record their memories: What format are you going to use?

That sounds like a simple enough question, but as anyone who’s ever happened upon a trove of reel to reel audio recordings or 8mm film canisters can attest, the only thing more frustrating than not being able to capture family stories is to save them in a format that no one can access.

To deal with the technical obsolescence factor, it’s important to educate yourself about digital preservation and plan ahead for that eventuality.

Digital preservation is a reality in today's family history environment. Photo courtesy of Christian Haugen via Flickr.

Digital preservation is a reality in today’s family history environment. Photo courtesy of Christian Haugen via Flickr.

Format choices

Most family storycatchers think about compiling their narrator’s stories in a book, or making a video after interviewing the narrator on camera. And these two options both have distinct advantages …

Books are low-tech to produce – all you need is a notebook and a pen to get started with your interviewing. They’re sturdy, portable and don’t rely on batteries or a specific type of digital device to bring them to life.

Videos are now easier than ever to shoot, edit and distribute – In fact, some family historians have produced presentable films using nothing more than their smartphone.

But family histories are as unique as the individuals they chronicle. Your narrator’s story may fit better in less conventional formats, such as:

  • Audio – Provides a focus on that most powerful of all communication channels, the human voice. You can also add ambient sound, music or sound effects to enhance the storytelling impact.
  • E-book – Can be shared online or even sold through a site such as or If you have a family glued to their Kindles or Nooks, this might be your format.
  • Graphic novel – AKA the comic book. Before you snort at the idea of doing a personal history this way, check out Maus or Fun Home.
  • Animation – As with the graphic novel format mentioned above, this format requires access to a good illustrator. But StoryCorps demonstrates that it can work:

In the end, there are three factors that will most likely influence your selection of format …

1. Time. For those who want to share the stories of an aging narrator while the narrator is still alive, it’s important to figure out which medium would allow them to finish most quickly. If the narrator is comfortable on camera, making a quick video (if you know how to edit it) could be a way to share the footage as soon as possible.

2. Comfort. It’s becoming easier and easier to gather raw material using the most basic of tools. Your smartphone can handle a lot of tasks if that’s all you have to work with. But especially if you are pressed for time, it makes more sense to go with a medium you’re familiar with, so you’re not piling on a tech learning curve on top of producing the family story.

3. Legacy. Simply put, how durable do you want this project to be? All-digital platforms are appealing to younger generations, but come with built-in preservation challenges. On the other hand, if you want your materials to be available 50 years from now for your great-grandchildren, or members of the local historical society, a printed book may be the answer.

Mix it up
If you’ve got one foot in the new-tech “kinda now, kinda wow” camp and one in the old-school “tried and true” camp, one solution can be to create a project that combines analog and digital components. For example, your project capturing the early years of your parents’ marriage could have a printed component – a book or mini-book – as well as a digital part that includes a disc (CD, DVD, Blu-Ray) containing photos, audio files, video files, etc.

Here are a few more ideas for blending formats:

  • If your primary format is a DVD or Blu-Ray video disc, you could provide “special features” on the disc that include photographs, audio files, or text excepts from your interviews or documents such as personal letters or journals.
  • If your primary format is an audio CD, if you format it as a data disc, you can also include text files and images on it.
  • If your primary format is a printed book, you could include a companion CD or DVD with audio or video interview outtakes, additional photos, or scans of original family documents, including letters, journals, handwritten family tree diagrams, etc.
  • If you have web developer or graphic designer friends and share your project on a website, you can include interactive features such as puzzles or quizzes, links to maps or a Google Earth current street view of a property, as well as the full gamut of audio, video, photos, and text.

The questions to you

  1. What format will you choose for your family history project?
  2. Do you have any concerns about either wanting to incorporate old materials in “obsolete” formats into your project, or how to ensure your current project is accessible in 10 years?
  3. How do you plan to address these challenges?

One comment

  1. […] series, we discussed how to invite your family member to tell his or her life stories, and how to select a format for presenting their stories. Today, we’ll talk about how to set up the interview environment […]

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