Interviewing Relatives

Submitted by: HOST GFS Chrissy

Interviewing Relatives

As the family historian, one of your most enjoyable times will be conversations with relatives \ friends in your quest for more knowledge. Just remember this is a secondary source. As they elaborate on tales, you will enjoy them, but you should be prepared to verify all this information. My mother was always trying to get us related to General Nathaniel Green. Some folks do elaborate on their family history. :)

You have the opportunity to interview all the living grandparents, cousins, and even the friends who knew your family, or heard about your family over the last fifty to eighty years. Your main purpose for interviewing these people is to learn how your family lived fifty to eighty years ago. This seems like so much extra effort to all the paper research you have been doing. Please remember, no amount of library research can duplicate or replace what these people can tell.

Do you remember when there was no television, air-conditioning, computers, microwave ovens or cellular phones? The people you will interview can tell you about the days when there were no cars, radios, telephones or running water. My uncle ran a pipe from the spring on top of the mountain to the farm house pump. This was how they received their "running water." As genealogists we should record our recollections and reactions to what was happening around us.

Also, as genealogists, we must remember that family history and genealogy cannot be separated from the country's history and culture. For example, if you are interviewing someone who was born in the 1950s you do not want to ask them about Pearl Harbor. :)

If you are the elder historian of the family, one of the greatest gifts you can give to your descendants is what I call a "Tidbit" file. In this file you write down all the memories you had as you were growing up. This file does not have to be in chronological order when you begin writing it. This "Tidbit" file will give your descendants an idea of what life was like for you. Describe your childhood and adult homes, family traditions, holidays, and favorite hobbies in this file. Actually, I encourage everyone to take the time to write down lifetime experiences. I have a copy of my great-grandfather's diary from his three years in the Civil War. His diary gave me some insight to his parents personalities and how they lived. The original is in the Vermont Historical Society Archives.

I have received four different responses to my request for a family history interview.

1 ~ "Wonderful, I am glad someone is doing it."

2 ~ "I always knew there was a loose nut in the family."

3 ~ "The family history is no ones business! Live and let live I always say!"

4 ~ "I do not know the answers." My brother's oldest son, Brian, is one of these.

Aarrgh! Brian does not remember how old he was when he lived in IL, or moved to MI. He cannot remember when his mother Diane moved to IA. The "paperwork" on them I can find. The family history could be lost. Talk about building a family history brick wall! He is doing a fine job of it! The "paperwork" research will be easy to do. I have approached his brother for the family history. He will do it if I pay him. My only other option is his stepsister. I may luck out with her. I will, at least, get her side of the family history. Every little bit of information I gather via interviews will assist future family historians.

Obviously there may be challenges to getting an interview now and then. :) Persevere! The family history is important. The people who lived were not just names, dates and locations. They were living, vibrant people who offered much, not only to your family but to our country. Your interview goals should be to find out about family traditions and events.

There are four ways to conduct an interview:

1. Person to Person
2. Snail Mail
3. Friend or Relative do it for you
4. Telephone call

Person to Person Interview

Remember to smile, have eye contact with the person you are interviewing. Your body language will tell the person you are interviewing how you are responding to them. React to stories they tell you appropriately. We need to be sensitive to their feelings and wishes. Every family has "closets" it prefers not to have opened for airing. You just may have to find the information from another location.

Whether taping with video camera or audiotape here are some suggestions:

1. The video camera should be placed on a tripod or a stand so it will remain steady. Try placing the video camera in an unobtrusive corner because some people are very self-conscious when the video is running. Some digital video cameras have remote control devices that can be helpful during an interview. I do not have a digital video camera. ::sigh::

2. The audiotape machine should be on a table with the microphone close enough to both of you. I found that a microphone of the audiotape machine too close to me, it picked up the sound of rustling papers. I use a sixty-minute good quality audiotape. I always bring along an extra tape, more batteries, or an AC \ DC adapter and cord. I suggest leaving the tape visible when you are recording so you can see how much time you have to finish a topic before turning the tape over.

I practiced placement of both of these machines with my children and grandchildren. Children love to talk about birthday parties (especially if it is their birthday), summer vacation travels, going to school, best friends, and sports. They will also enjoy these tapes when they get older. :)

You will get a better recording if you remember:

1. Speak slowly and loudly enough to be understood.

2. Be aware that people tend to let their voices drop at the end of phrases. The longer the interview, the more chance that will happen.

3. If more than more person speaks at a time it could mean a garbled or confusing tape.

4. Ask for clarification of nicknames. For example, is the nickname Molly or Polly; Fred or Jed?

5. We all use the pronouns he, she, it, him, her, they, and them interchangeably. Take time to clarify that "she" really means Aunt Ruth and not Aunt Grace.

With the tape recording you will hear the person's feelings as he \ she relates a story. You will hear the accents and the colloquial expressions which vary so much from area to area of this country and from their homeland.

Remember the five Ws of interviewing. Who, What, Where, When, Why \ How. If you remember these five questions you will be able to bring the relative back from any ramblings of how many moose he saw that year in VT, or the number of cows he had to milk each day. You are not just seeking dates and locations, but... how many moose he saw each year he lived in VT - Do you really need to know? :)

If possible, interview the person alone, so there are not too many distractions. Of course, there are exceptions. When I interviewed my uncle, his daughter was with him. He was 82 years old at the time. She helped to jog his memory and the two of them had a wonderful conversation. I had a tape filled on two sides. :) I received more clues where to search for their side of the family just by listening to them. I never knew he had 11 siblings until I did that interview. I found out why his wife is not buried in the family plot on Poker Hill Rd in Underhill, VT. After the "conversation" with them, I transcribed it. I sent a copy to my uncle and one to my cousin with duplicate pictures of the two of them together. My cousin, Arlene, later wrote that she had never known some of the information that her father talked about. She said she is starting a "Tidbit" file and she has no computer. :)

Interview by Relative \ Friend

To assist him \ her with the interview, prepare them with as much information as you can. Send him \ her family group sheets or family fact sheets and a list of questions. You will need to check on the type of recording equipment he \ she plans to use so you can send the appropriate recording tape. Most likely this interview will be shorter than the hour you would probably use in a personal interview. You can still gain a wealth of knowledge. :)

Interview by Mail

You will get a better response if this person knows you. I recommend sending about five questions to a person, leaving enough space in between each question for room to answer. If you are requesting information about more than one surname, use a separate question page for each family. File the information you receive by the surname. If they write "I don't know" or leave a blank, reassure the correspondent that it is not possible to remember everything. Every little bit of information is a help in your search for the family history. Please include a self addressed stamped envelope, and a pleasant note with your request. When you receive the answers, write back and thank them. You may need their assistance again. I personally make a point of dropping a quickie note to these folks on a regular basis. :)

Interview by Telephone

You should make sure they know you before you call them and start asking questions about the family. I have written ahead of time to ask them if I may call for information in the future. I include a family group sheet with the letter requesting the phone call interview. :) In your letter, ask for dates and times that would be convenient for them. Suggest times that are convenient for you, too. Remember their time is as valuable as your time. You may get the answers you want quickly.

For more information on interviewing here at the Genealogy Forum go to Keyword: ROOTS > Columnists > Dear Myrtle Daily Column > Lessons > Lesson 21, Interviewing Relatives

Keyword: ROOTS > Library > Logs, Newsletters and More > Beginner's > GENTREK-Genograms, Part 2

In summary:

1 ~ Make an appointment.
2 ~ Have a few questions that are pertinent.
3 ~ Remember the five(5) Ws of interviewing.
4 ~ Type the transcript and send a copy with a photo of you and them at the interview back to them.
5 ~ Send a thank you note. :)
6 ~ To preserve your video tape and audiotape, transfer them to compact discs.



© 2002 GFNEWS, a monthly publication of the Golden Gate Genealogy Forum, Inc. of Franklin, MA.
(America Online Keyword: roots.) The
Editors welcome your ideas and articles,
success stories, favorite genealogy research tips, comments and suggestions.

© 2002 Graphics By Carol, All Rights Reserved