Julie McDonald Commentary: Capturing Family Stories Easier Using Artificial Intelligence


Wildfires. Floods. High prices. COVID-19. Deaths. Divisiveness. Angst.

The year 2021 brought with it a lot of tension, but as we gather this week for Thanksgiving, it’s a time to reflect on the blessings we’ve enjoyed — radiant sunsets, glorious mountains, flourishing friendships and the faithfulness of family.

At a graveside service Saturday for Brad Brinson, a friend who died of COVID-19, Pastor Joseph Martin of Toledo First Baptist Church shared a reminder. “Life is incredibly short,” he said. “You don’t want to waste it.”

If we’re holding grudges against others, it’s time to mend those divisions. “Love each other and forgive each other,” he said. “Show grace toward each other, especially in days like we’ve been going through, especially dealing with issues like we’ve had to deal with.”

He noted that bridge building is harder work than putting up walls, but it’s necessary.

“You don’t know how much time you have to be reconciled,” he said. “Don’t wait too long to love.”

Reconciling with family members and friends is priceless.

So are the stories of our loved ones.

As floodwaters recently inundated homes and businesses in Whatcom County, I thought of what I’d haul from our house in an emergency. After family members and pets, I’d grab the videos and life story books of my parents and my in-laws.

As Rudyard Kipling said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

It’s never been easier to preserve the stories of family members and friends, thanks in large part to technology and artificial intelligence. When we gather together this week, consider recording the stories of your elders and preserving them for posterity — perhaps even as a Christmas gift.

When I ran into a friend at a store recently, she asked about recording her husband’s stories. I showed her a small affordable eight-gigabyte voice recorder I’ve purchased in the past, but as we spoke, I thought about free options for recording and transcribing stories.

With a smart cellphone, it’s easy to use pre-installed audio or video recording apps or download free apps.

During an online conference last summer, I learned about a fantastic program — Otter.ai. The downloadable program for cell phones and computers enables people to record and transcribe at the same time. What once required many steps — plus time and money — happens instantaneously. And the best part is Otter offers a basic plan that’s free.

The basic plan provides 600 minutes of recording and transcription a month, with each session limited to 40 minutes (it drops to 30 minutes Dec. 1). The pro plan costs nearly $100 but allows for four-hour interviews and 6,000 minutes a month. I purchased the pro plan to transcribe my husband’s letters from Vietnam, although I should have customized the vocabulary to avoid so many spelling errors — especially in names like Nui Ba Den, Cu Chi, Trang Bang, Bien Hoa, Tan Son Nhut and Long Binh.

Find a quiet room when you’re ready to interview a grandparent, parent or sibling. Let others know what you’re doing to avoid interruptions.

Push the record button and start asking questions.

What questions?

The internet abounds with lists of oral history questions. Here are a few you can find with a simple Google search: “Journal Jar Questions” on the saltzworks.blogspot, “A Script for Video or Audio Interviews with Family Members” on rootsweb.com, “50 Questions to Ask Relatives About Family History” on thoughtco.com, or download the list of “Oral History Questions” at https://www.readwritethink.org/sites/default/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson805/questions.pdf.

It may take several interviews to capture a life story. I usually figure eight to 12 hours, but even one or two captures the narrator’s voice recalling precious family stories. Save the video or audio recording onto a hard drive and/or CD or DVD.

Otter can transcribe the text while recording, but another affordable option is transcribe.wreally.com, which is $20 a year and $6 an hour for transcription. Just upload the recording and then download the transcription.

Of course, both Otter and transcribe.wreally use artificial intelligence which, though good, makes a lot of mistakes. It requires time to clean up and edit the text in Word or another program. Then insert scanned photos or simply print the edited question-and-answer interview.

You can have it printed and bound at Gorham Printing, Staples, PostNet or another company or print it yourself and give it to loved ones as a unique gift they’ll treasure for years.

National Public Radio recently produced a Life Kit segment called “Every family has stories to tell.”

“Learning the stories of those closest to us not only enables us to better understand the trajectory of their lives but also helps us make sense of our own,” Simran Sethi said on NPR.

Through interviews, we can learn more about our loved ones — their triumphs and failures, medical issues and career paths, and values they hold most dear. The stories can link parents and grandparents with children and grandchildren, paving the path for future generations exploring their family trees.

“The pandemic has been a sober reminder that time is precious,” Sethi said. “Don’t let your family stories slip away.”


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.