You probably already know bits and pieces of the family
folklore. You should identify members in your family who can
recall stories and details about your ancestors and fill in the
missing pieces. Remember that information given to you should
be verified using historical documentation if possible. Memories
fade over time, and sometimes parts of the story are withheld
You should make an appointment if they are close and you can go at will. This really isn’t
necessary of you have to take a trip and will be spending some length of time but you should
still let them know you wish to talk about family and that you are working on a family history.
While you’re at it, you should let everyone know you’re working on family history. This will
help you in our next topic.
In person interviews are always better than over the phone or through the mail (or email). You
should prepare ahead of time, of course. There are many sources on the internet for possible
questions so I’m not going to cover that specifically. I would recommend a digital voice
recorder to record your interview. Make sure you disable the ‘voice activation’ as this tends to
cut off the beginnings of statements. You should take a few notes during the interview but
mainly just listen. If something is said with which you wish follow up you should jot down a
note about it but do not interrupt. You can go back to it later.
Once the interview is over and you are back home, transcribe the interview as soon as possible
but also keep the recording for future reference and just to listen to. We have interviews of
relatives long since passed on and it’s wonderful to go back and listen to the recordings and
experience them once again.
The best results tend to come from an ‘open’ style of interview. By this I mean questions which
require more than just a short answer. For instance, you can ask, “Did you live through the
Great Depression, Grandma?” That’s a good subject but a poor question. The only answer
required is a simple, “Yes.” It should be asked more in the manner of, “Grandma, tell me what
it was like to live during the Great Depression.” This will lead to a discussion which will
interest everyone and not just dry questions and answers which can become quickly boring
and a chore to all concerned.
Similarly, don’t dwell on the simple facts of dates and places and names. These are important,
of course, but the story is much more important. You will want to find out what their
childhood was like, the places they lived, what they did, the people they knew. It’s the story
which I believe becomes so compelling. It’s the story which makes these long gone relatives
live again in our imaginations so that we can get to know them even though we’ve never met.
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