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Ask any genealogist, they will tell you about the family member they didn’t interview. The ancestor they wish they could speak with today; the one that got away. I would have to ask why that interview didn’t take place. Interviewing the living can be an overwhelming task. An uncomfortable and awkward event that some beginners just are not prepared to undertake. As a new genealogist, many are timid and introverted, and fear the interview process. Inexperienced interviewers are fearful of asking the difficult questions, or of not asking the right questions. Interviewing another human being is not an easy task for most people. It does not come naturally for many and when you are uncomfortable with a situation you procrastinate until it’s too take late. A new family historian may set their fears aside and pursue the interview, but nerves, inexperience, and lack of preparation often lead to poor results. Perhaps they didn’t ask enough questions, or they asked the wrong types of questions, sometimes time and geography stood in the way. Others just simply didn’t feel competent or prepared to do the job. Others waited, sometimes too long. They waited until they had a little more knowledge of the process of genealogy. Other genealogists posted their talk until they researched a little more, or until they had this information or that document. Others waited until life was less busy and they had time to prepare. They waited. One day waking up and that person was gone with 80 plus years of memories and family history. So, time and time again when I hear “I would love to begin researching my family history but I don’t know where to start.” My answer is and will always be start
with the living.
Separating the Facts from the Folklore
We have them in every family, the stories and the folklore passed down from generation to generation. Each time a story is told it becomes construed and the line between truth and fiction becomes blurred. Nowhere is that as apparent as in family history. Genealogists deal in facts. Folklore is usually unwritten tales that resemble little of their original event and that occurred generations before. Our job, as family historians, is to move the folklore closer to the fact. Strip away the fiction so that we can confidently retell these stories and record them for generations to come, whether that would be in a blog or a book, or a video. After all what is the primary purpose of capturing your relative’s stories, but to record them for future generations? One very important step to bringing the truth to light behind the family tales is through interviewing your family members. It is the most effective way to get to the bottom of these stories. Followed up with some strong genealogy research you can finally lock down the truth of your family history. As family history researchers, we spend much of our time at a computer screen, in archives or in cemeteries; not all of these locations are deemed the most social of places. Therefore, when all the authorities are telling you to interview the living as your first step to uncovering your family history, this can be overwhelming. Let’s face it, it’s far less messy to sit at your computer and search a genealogy database without anyone ever knowing. Far more difficult is the task of sitting down with an unwilling crusty old Aunt and prying out of her the family secrets.
Yet this is exactly what must be done, and this guide will give you the confidence and the tools to do just that; discover your family’s story through interviewing the living.
What is An Oral History?
What you are about to take on is often referred to as an oral history. The process of a one-on-one interview where by a person’s account of various moments in their life are recorded either through audio, video or writing.
The first step to your family history research is gathering what you know. This takes the form of documents, bibles, photographs, everything and anything tangible that can help paint a picture of your family. Part of that initial step of gathering what you know is to interview your relatives. Gathering oral accounts of those still with you is your link to the past; they are sitting right in front of you. Don’t let time, geography, your skill set or fear come between you and the family history interview.
Our living family have the ability to fill in many of the missing pieces that can’t be revealed in a document. Often they don’t even know it. While a document is able to reveal the facts of an event in an ancestor’s life, a living account from a relative who knew that ancestor or was at that event can turn that document into a story. One of the first questions that comes into play, as it relates to an oral history, is whether they are reliable. Often times, the very family we are interviewing are the elderly with failing memories. So, you may ask yourself why put so much weight into an oral history? While the memory of the elderly may be failing when it comes to dates and names, there still is a great deal that can be learned and obtained. Interviews may not be the most reliable method of obtaining names and dates; we have documents for such purposes. However, an oral history does allow us to gather a relative’s experiential account of their life. These conversations can reveal a relative’s attitudes, perceptions and family traditions. Firsthand recollections will inevitably add significant substance and great value to your family history research. Genealogists often discover this too late. After years of research a historian will sit down to write their narratives only to discover key elements are missing; the social family history, the first-hand account of those who lived the stories, a direct quote from a relative who has since passed, the fundamentals that add details to our stories. Not all the queries need to be deep, ground moving life questions. Sometimes the
A family history interview can help fill in missing gaps in your research; however, it is so much more. It will be the social history that you will long for when you are attempting to write those dry genealogy facts into a family history story. Your documents will provide the who, what and when, but your family history interview will provide the why and how.
subject matter may seem frivolous or silly now, but once put into perspective can add considerable value to your family history narrative later. For example, “What was your favorite toy growing up as a child?” At first glance, you might think what does that have to do with family history? However, several years from now when you are preparing to write the story of your grandmother and you’re attempting to establish her in the setting of her childhood, you’ll be happy to have references to her favorite toy, of course along with many other questions you asked about her childhood. Blended together, these facts, impressions and quotes create a scene and establish your grandmother into her place and time. You are able to put that toy in her hands, tell a story and know that it’s not speculative but pulled together from her own memories and the oral interview you conducted. Oral histories can reveal detail about our ancestor’s lives. It can provide depth to economic conditions, work, social roles and attitudes, responses to world events, fads and fashions, foods and traditions. Your oral history interview will authenticate your ancestor’s existence and will make it come to life on the page.
How This Guide Will Help You
1. Overcome Your Fear of the Interview If you’re a timid family historian who is not at ease interviewing others, this manual will help you get comfortable? Too many delay their oral history interview due to fear. Through the knowledge you gain in this manual and with practice you can overcome your fears. You’ll learn the value of preparation, how to gently guide the conversation and how to create the right questions. Combined they will arm you with knowledge and confidence to overcome your fears of interviewing your family members. 2. Learn the Real Story Stories are passed from generation to generation; no longer can the account be trusted. By consulting with multiple family members united with primary and secondary documents, you can uncover the real story. Don’t take a family tale at face value; through your conversations you can reveal the story from many perspectives. In addition, the interview process will provide a documentation of that conversation, safe from manipulation and speculation years down the road. 3. Fill in the Missing Pieces Once you’ve gathered all that you know you will be able to identify the holes in your knowledge. Before rushing to archives to fill in the gaps, first turn to your living relatives. You will be surprised at how much information they may have stored in their memories as well as that old trunk in the attic. Don’t waste your time hunting for answers that your family already hold. Make the most of your living relative’s memories, and then when you hit the Internet and the archives you’ll have exhausted your family as a first resource.
4. Open Up New Areas of Research After collecting the knowledge of your living relatives, you’ll be ready to start filling in the real missing information. All too often, while your family will be able to answer many of your queries, more questions will be revealed as a result. This will move your research forward. 5. Learn to Ask the Difficult Questions This guide will help you to get to the heart of some of those difficult questions, with respect and finesse you will be able to ask the questions no one else wanted to ask or were too afraid to ask. Learning a few skills can but you in the right position to get those difficult inquires answered. 6. Be Prepared with the Tools to Do the Job Right Learn what tools are necessary in conducting a successful interview. This eBook will outline what you will need, including 130 interview questions. You’ll go into the interview prepared, confident and primed for success. Regardless of whether you are creating a family history book or interviewing family members to fill in some blanks in your pedigree chart, the same process applies. As organization is key to genealogy, preparation is key to a successful interview.
7. Obtain In-depth Social History to Illustrate Your Ancestor’s Lives Finally, while your interviews will fill in many of the missing pieces, you will have the opportunity to obtain a substantial amount of oral history quotes and social context. This is the stuff that adds color to your stories. It’s the kind of information you’ll be glad to have when it comes time to write a narrative, biography, memoir or any kind of family history book.
8. Self-Discovery Interviewing the living can be a life-changing event. It provides you with an opportunity to bond, empathize and understand their lives on a much deeper level. Most likely, you will come to discover something about yourself in the process.
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Why I Can Help You
If you want to be a family historian, the keeper of the family stories, then interviewing the living is your first priority. You cannot accomplish that effectively from your laptop. It does require some personal skills and a face-to-face meeting. While some interviews can be conducted from your laptop, or telephone (we’ll talk more about that later), in order to achieve success in a person-to-person interview, you need to address your social skills, particularly, your interviewing talents. Interviewing skills are really about developing an awareness of your interviewee, creating conditions for the discussion to be comfortable, flexible and open to good communication, and the science of getting the most detail out of your subject. How do we do that and why I can help you? I have twenty years’ experience as manager with extensive human resource management training. A large part of my job was interviewing potential employees and developing other managers to do the same. I have talked to thousands of potential employees over my career. It did not take me long to realize that the same skills I acquired in my day job I was using in my family history interviews. Therefore, I decided to create this manual to help you polish your talents and find the success you’re looking for in your interviews. Several years ago, I wrote a family history book. To prepare for writing this book, I conducted over 50 interviews via in person, email, telephone and in a group setting. One thing is certain; it is far less stressful interviewing complete strangers for a job than it is interviewing family members for the secrets and stories, however, the same skills none the less. With all my interviewing experience, even I was intimidated by some family members; I knew other family historians had to be struggling as well.
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Regardless of whether your goal is to begin your family history research, to find the truth behind the stories or to learn to be a less timid family historian, I hope this eBook will give you the tools to direct you through the process.
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Preparing for the Interview
The key to great dialogue is to practice and be prepared. Before you go into any interview, take time to prepare and do your homework. Being readied and organized will to lighten any interview anxiety you may have. In turn this allows you to be more relaxed, and for your relative to be comfortable. This will reflex well in your family member’s responses. Define Your Goals Each family history interview you conduct must have a clear purpose. Ask yourself what you hope to achieve through this conversation. Layout your goals in advance and allow these goals to lead your choices of whom to start with and the questions you prepare for them.
How to Define Your Goals 1. Keeping in mind the above considerations, ask yourself who should I interview first and why? 2. What is the purpose of the interview? What do you hope to discover or achieve by the end of the interview? Once you have your answer tailor your interview and questions to meet your goals.
Decide Who to Start With? You may feel the most at ease by starting with a parent, sibling or grandparent. Don’t be afraid to ask a few close friends or family members to be your first candidates. Use them as your test subjects, an opportunity to practice your skills. Choose subjects that you can ask for honest feedback from on your skills. As you become more comfortable with interviewing, you can progress to more difficult family members as well as non-relatives such as best friends and long-time neighbours. Other possible subjects include employers, household boarders and nannies.
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Regardless of whomever you start with, you should ultimately try to get to the eldest of your ancestors as soon as possible. I am not trying to be insensitive, but you want to capture their memories before they pass. It is the reality of genealogy. Meeting with Objections
Tip: Reach out through social media such as Facebook to help seek out possible interview candidates.
Some of your relatives will have objections an interview. Often family members do not feel like they have anything to offer, or cannot contribute to your goal. For those objections take the approach you simply want to reminisce about their childhood, parents, and grandparents making the interview low key. Explain that every life is a story that will be of interest to future generations. Clarify that this is not an interrogation and that they are in control of the interview and if there is any subject they don’t want to discuss, their wishes will be respected. Often the family members you interview will be older then yourself. Some relatives may not want to confide in you for this reason, perhaps a perception that the family secrets may be too sensitive for tender ears. Sometimes they wish to keep a family secret confined to the generation in which it occurred. Having another relative with you, whom he or she is close to may help bridge the gap until you have established a trust. However, once again if there is anything they do not wish to discuss, respect their wishes.
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A Good Attitude You want your relative to come to the discussion with a great outlook but your attitude is just as important. Remember you both have come to this conversation with motives. As the interviewer, you must have tremendous humility when you interview, you can’t think you are entitled to the answers. You have an obligation to tell their stories accurately and you must clearly demonstrate; this is your intention. Should your family member suspect you have ulterior motives, your meeting is doomed. Let go of your assumptions. Don’t go into an interview thinking you know all the facts to a story. Check your conjecture at the door. While I ask you to go into the interview prepared on the details of your relative’s life, let your interviewee have the time to tell their story naturally. Do not pre-write the story or presume you know it all. Let them tell their story in their own words and in their own voice. It will mean so much more to have those direct quotes when you sit down to write their stories. Reject the premise that you are imposing yourself on other people and that you have no right to invade their privacy. Generally, most relatives are happy to be interviewed, especially if they understand the purpose of the interview. Most are flattered that someone wants to capture their stories.
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Coming equipped with the proper tools is important to feeling relaxed and ready to take on the interview. Your nerves will come into play, therefore the more organized and familiar you are with your equipment, the easier your interview will flow. Determine in advance how you plan to record your interview. Tools ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● A Notebook and Pens Audio Recorder Video Camera Old photographs, family heirlooms Any unidentified photographs An updated pedigree chart A bio of the individual being interviewed, with all known and unknown facts A list of interview questions A Flip-Pal Mobile Scanner
Audio Recorder You can take written notes or you can use an audio or video recorder. I highly recommend an audio recorder; it allows you to be present at the interview, not distracted by your own note taking. A tape recorder is also less intimidating then you with pen and paper in hand waiting to bounce on the answers. Subjects often forget about the tape recorder very quickly, it will soon disappear into the background.
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Make sure your recorder is in good working order, with new batteries and plenty of memory available. Test your equipment in advance, know how it works, you don’t want any surprises at the end of a two-hour meeting. Identify the parties on the recorder prior to beginning the discussion including the date and the location of the interview. While you can use a smartphone to record, I would recommend a separate recording device for interviews of any great length, or if you intend on completing numerous interviews. A designated recorder can offer better quality sound and an extended memory capacity. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you will recall the entire interview later, you won’t. Use a recorder, play it safe. Old Photographs Bring old photographs or family heirlooms to help jog memories. Don’t be afraid to bring unidentified photographs, your family members just might hold the key to discovering nameless faces in those photos.
Updated Pedigree Chart An updated pedigree chart is not only a wonderful reference tool for your own piece of mind but it may also help your interviewee in organizing their thoughts.
A Biography and Timeline of the Family Member’s Life In point form, create a biography and timeline of your subject. You need to have a thorough knowledge and be fully aware of major events in their life and have enough details available to ask specific questions. Don’t go into an interview blind about your subject. Think of the biography and timeline like a resume in a job interview only you’ll
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be the one preparing it in advance. It is the single best way to be well versed in your relative’s life. In addition, it is an ideal approach to preparing specific relevant questions in preparation for your talk.
Camera Bring your camera and capture the moment. Be sure to record the date and persons in the picture and file the picture with your oral history notes. This interview may later serve as a primary source, treat it as such. Video Camera If your subject is open to the idea, videotaping is a fantastic option for recording your family history interview. Having an oral history record on video tape allows you to capture the interviewees own words and image for generations to come. You will have caught on tape their inflections, body language and appearance for family members to enjoy and for you to utilize in future writings.
The Flip-Pal Mobile Scanner The Flip-Pal mobile scanner is great new tool that is perfect for family history interviews. It is portable, so you can carry it with you. If your family member presents you with pictures, you can quickly scan them, never having to remove the photos from their possession. Even if those pictures are stuck in old photo albums. The Flip-Pal will scan right through the laminate. Maybe your family member has a picture in a frame or hanging on the wall. This mini scanner will capture that photo without taking it out of the frame or taking the photograph off the wall, regardless of its size. This convenient
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scanner works great for those family members who are hesitant about letting their family memorabilia leave their home. The Flip-Pal scans pictures and documents and photos a 300 and 600 dpi, perfect should you decide to create a family history book. Icebreaker Tip: Just be sure you investigate the copyrights on the photo before publishing any picture.
The facts you have established in your relative biography and timeline can serve you well as an easy icebreaker. Asking or confirming facts in the beginning of the interview will get the conversation flowing with little effort. Once everyone is comfortable you can begin to focus in on those more thought provoking questions.
A Prepared List of Questions Ask open-ended questions. An interview filled with questions that require a yes or no response will end quickly, with little revealed. It’s important to have a prepared list of interview questions that keeps your goals in mind and that are based on the timeline and experiences of your interviewee. We will go into more detail regarding about creating specific questions later in this guide.
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Setting the Tone of the Interview It’s so easy to state: set the right tone for an interview. However, what exactly does that mean? It comes down to one thing; making your interviewee feel comfortable. It means creating an atmosphere where your subject is relaxed and feels they can trust and open up to you. The best way to make
Icebreaker Tip: Open the conversation by talking about something totally off topic. Reveal something about yourself. You want to give them permission to laugh. If you can get your family member to this comfort level, they will feel free to answer all your questions.
your relative at ease is by creating an informal and environment. Creating an ambience that feels less formal and looks more like a natural and casual conversation will be much more effective than a journalistic style interrogation. Create an setting that is free of distractions; choose an appropriate time of the day, with no time barriers. Allow for plenty of time so you and your relatives are not rushed. In addition, keep in mind the time of day, your elderly relative may tire easily. Make sure the environment will be void of all disruptions like telephones, TV, cell phones and visitors. Seniors also like routine and don’t like to be unsettled from their regular schedules. Be
sure to plan around conflicts, giving your family member little objections to the interview.
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You want to make a connection with your interviewee and you may be inclined to rush this development. Resist this and give them time to settle into the interview. Understand that some family will take several minutes to settle, while others may take several hours. You must have patience. For those more difficult relatives, it may take several small casual meetings over the course of numerous months to gain their trust. Be a great audience, listen, laugh or be serious, take cues from your subject. Be objective and compassionate. Once your subject feels comfortable they will begin to talk candidly. Don’t be afraid to schedule your interview in two sessions, especially if there is plenty of information to cover. You may feel this opportunity will not present itself again and you’re going to get all you can out of this moment. But this approach can backfire. If the dialogue lasts too long your interviewee may tire and answers may become brief. Allowing time in between conversations provides the relative an opportunity to draw up some old memories creating for a productive second talk.
Protect the Privacy and Rights of Your Relatives. If you choose to audio or video record your interview, never record secretly. Always be open about the process. Be forthcoming about how you intend to use the information you acquire. If you have a plan in place for how you intend to use the material obtained then full disclosure upfront is necessary. At the very least, a verbal conversation is important before the interview. You may wish to ask them to sign a release form either before or after the interview. I find before may come off as intimidating. Get them to a comfort and trust level before you ask this request. While you may not intend to use the
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information beyond aiding your own research, don’t assume you won’t turn to those interviews later for a family history book. Play it safe and ask them to sign a release while you have them in front of you.
Be Flexible Good interview skills will not happen overnight. It comes with practice. During the conversation, you’re juggling many balls. You want to ask the right questions, listen to your subject, ask great follow up questions and make sure the answers are relevant and on course. Don’t worry if your first couple of interviews don’t go smoothly. The greatest talent you can bring to your conversations is to be flexible. The best interview resembles more of a gently guided chat rather than a structured question and answer session. A good interviewer doesn't stick to a script; they can be flexible on the fly. Recognizing and seizing the moment to dig a little deeper when the opportunity presents itself is an important skill to learn. If you can create probing questions on a moment’s notice you’ll get to the good stuff. Listen Too much writing and note taking can get in the way of effective listening, another great reason for using an audio or video recorder. Consider bringing a friend to help take notes, someone that the person is familiar with so they’ll feel comfortable. You don’t want the interviewee to feel outnumbered or intimidated, so use a helper cautiously. Often interviewers become too involved in the dialogue and forget to take notes and while you want to be present and engaged with your subject trying to record with
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paper and pen makes this next to impossible. So focus on listening and responding and let technology record for you.
Dig for the Details Ask for other sources of information. Your family member may suggest another relative who would have better knowledge of a particular time or incident. Remember to ask for all components of a good answer; who, what, when, where, why and how. Don’t forget to ask; how did you feel? The story is in the details. The details are there, you just need to ask for them. Too Much Detail Yes, the story is in the details, but too much detail can send you to places that are useless to your goal. Avoid letting your family member go on about facts that have little bearing on the bigger picture. If the information is not aiding your goals or adding depth and value to your story then it’s time to intervene and refocus the interview. Don’t Overload the Question Just as you want the five W’s answered don’t load up your question out front. Keep them brief to start, and then use follow-up reponses as needed to pull out any of the missing elements and expand on the information. Start with the where and when and then follow up with the how’s and whys.
Getting the Full Picture Don’t let your subject gloss over their life as it if was all peaches and cream.
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Everyone has hard times in their life. Be prepared to press for the full picture. Perhaps, your relative only wants to discuss the doom and gloom in their childhood. Assert for some of the happier moments. You are looking to obtain a well-rounded account of this person’s life. Dealing With Off Topic Tangents Don't interrupt a great story. If questions about the story being told are coming to you, jot them down and follow up after the relative has finished speaking. Sometimes subjects get off topic. That's ok, let them finish then gently guide them back on topic. Sometimes a story you feel may be off topic, suddenly becomes an open door to new information. Don’t be quick to shut it down because it wasn’t on your prepared list of questions. The Awkward Silence Don’t let silences in your interview make you nervous. Allowing for some quite time, for the interviewee to take some time to think fully about a question and respond in a well thought out manner is important. Jumping to the next question because you’re uncomfortable with the silence can be detrimental to getting a well thought out and in-depth answer. Take the time to have a drink or make a note, review your questions. Let them have a moment to think on the response. If they seemed to be struggling with a reply, maybe the question needs rephrasing or perhaps you can come back to it later in the interview. This brings us to our next big interviewing blunder, sticking to a script. Sticking to a Script Too rigid of an interview is completely within your control. You did your homework, you came prepared with a list of questions but now I’m urging you not to stick to the script. Use those questions as a guideline. Allow for some flexibility to take
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the interview wherever it may lead as long as it’s bringing out those life stories. Be prepared to dig below the surface of the story with follow up queries. Be present in the interview, listen to the answers and be prepared to think on your feet. Gently push for the importance of the story in their life. Don’t be afraid to ask for more particulars, invite them to describe the setting, gestures, mannerisms and descriptions of the ancestors in their stories. Conducting an interview with a rigid set of questions from which you never deviate is a missed chance to respond to opportunities.
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Asking the Difficult Questions
Every family has its share of secrets. Often times the family skeletons wouldn’t amount to but a mere mention in today’s society. However, encouraging information from family members who have buried the details of a sensitive subject for years can be a difficult task. Sometimes your interviewee may feel they have nothing to offer. Maybe, they have trust issues. Of course, there is the difficult relative, the family member that is the most intimidating. The walls are up and they are critical or angry about something or someone. You must disarm them. But how? By acknowledging their negative emotions and asking tactful questions about the reasons behind their feelings, you can help to take down those walls and come to understand the reason behind their difficult exterior. You need to develop a compassionate and complete understanding of this person and empathize with their circumstances. Manipulation to get to the facts is not appropriate. Often there is a loyalty to a parent or grandparent who has passed and that is often why the secret continues to be carried forward. Sometimes there is shame or pride involved. If you want your family member to confide in you then having an empathic ear is best.
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Your relative may not be willing to share the most intimate details about a secret at first meeting. If you continue to establish an honest and altruistic bond with this person the time will come when they will share these details with you and you’ll be able to write your family history from a compassionate and empathic place. Emotions are a large part of the family dynamics. These don’t come through in a document or a record. It is up to you as the interviewer to capture these emotions. Sometimes embarrassing and sensitive subjects although hard to extract from a family member can be the most important to a family history. Save these questions for a point in the interview when you and your subject are very comfortable with each other and you have developed a trust. If you are not using a video recorder for the interview don’t forget to note your family member’s body language and disposition. Later you’ll want to have noted what questions they were excited to talk about, which questions brought them joy, which questions brought them sadness. You may remember their emotions, but not likely you remember how that demonstrated itself in the interview. While you may not use it in your writings you’ll appreciate the detail in your notes later when you are recalling it perhaps years down the road. There are multiple perspectives of one event. You don't want to lose an individual’s trust but you must be prepared to look at all sides of a situation. If you know of another version, gently ask about the account you heard, giving the family member an opportunity to respond. At the end of the day the more calm you are in your approach to the topic the more relaxed your subject will become; they will mirror you.
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Sometimes the answers never came because the difficult questions were just never asked. Perhaps you’re the first to find the nerve. Those difficult questions about sensitive subjects may need to reflect more of an ongoing conversation rather than a one-time question and answer. They also cannot be rushed. The more difficult the conversation the more time it may take to establish trust. Once trust and empathy are present your interview will become an honest and revealing conversation.
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The Long Distance Interview
I mentioned in the beginning of this guide that often an interview doesn’t take place because of geography. Sometimes it is just not feasible to sit in the same room with a relative. For various reasons usually distance, sometimes health or the cost of travel, a face-to-face meeting just can’t take place. You have several options when it comes to having a family history interview when person-to-person is not possible. Skype If your relative is online and has Skype, I believe this to be the next best thing to being there. If you and your relative have web cameras, then you can download Skype free from the Internet. Skype is ideal for long distance interviews because you can see the person. It means a great deal to be able to have a visual of the person when they respond to your questions. Being able to see their body language, their facial expressions, it conveys a lot about their answers and helps you understand where to dig deeper or move on. When you are dealing with the elderly not all are computer handy, however, you might be surprised how many of them are already on Skype so they can communicate with their children and grandchildren who live many miles away. Don’t discount this method because of your family member’s age, with the help of a relative this could easily be set up, and be a successful method of conducting family history interviews.
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Telephone My second choice after Skype would be conducting an interview by telephone. Hearing a person’s voice, being able to immediately respond to their answers and ask follow up questions is important when conducting an interview. Although you cannot see a person’s body language, you can hear tone in their voice and this allows you to read the person and their responses. However, Skype is still preferred because you can see the person and they can see you. There is little room for misunderstandings. Skype is also free, where a telephone call will come with long distance charges, unless of course you have a long distance package on your landline or cell phone. Email Email is my least favourite way of conversing when it comes to interviews. For the reasons stated above in Skype and telephone calls, you cannot see a person’s body language; you cannot hear tone in their voice. I find details tend to get lost in emails. Often times, questions are not answered completely, skipped over, your relative gets tired of typing, or they are interrupted. For all of the above reasons that a face-to-face meeting makes the most sense, email interviews are the least advantageous. Sometimes however, e-mails are all that may be available to you. If this is the case, then I’ll make a few suggestions to make the most of a family history interview through emails. Introduce yourself to your interviewee especially if they don’t already know you and explain what you are doing and how you plan to use the information. Don’t overload your first email with questions, start by enquiring with a few simple questions and probing if you could follow up with a few more. Spread your questions out over the course of several emails. You may have to ask for more details in your relatives answers or follow up with a few other questions.
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You can also prepare a list of questions and give them an extended deadline to fill in their answers and send it back to you. You will still find some will skim over it, and not fill in many questions and you spend time following up. Another option is to ask a family member to write down what they remember about a particular event or person. Let them reminiscence in an email, opening a door for communication and further questions. You should do your best not to overwhelm your relative so that they continue to be co-operative throughout the email-interview process. Social Media Social Media can play into your family history interviews in two major ways. Facebook Facebook is a great opportunity to connect with family; we already know this to be true. However, two elements of Facebook can be utilised to aid your family history interviews; direct messaging or creating a group page for your family members. You can direct message relatives from your Facebook account, a wonderful starting point to laying out the groundwork for an interview. Also consider starting a family group on Facebook and posting questions and pictures to the group. You might be surprised at how this interaction can draw out information. Posting a picture in the group for your members to identify is another fantastic way to make use of a family group page. I’ve gained access to many amazing family photos through my cousins on Facebook. Of course, Facebook is not the place to discuss the difficult questions. Participants will not be comfortable revealing secrets in such a public forum. Facebook is a great tool to reach out to family and create some enthusiasm over your interview project.
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Google+ While not all family members may be familiar with Google+, most are familiar with Google. Again, with a little instruction you can easily create a private Google+ community to gather your family and get your thoughts and questions out to the masses. Take it one-step further, gather a group of ten relatives and have a private Hangout on Air. Hangouts on Air are an opportunity to conduct a group interview with multiple family members who may in fact be living throughout the world. The hangout can be completely private and only accessible to the ten you invite. You can have a prepared list of questions ready but know that with a group this size, the reponses can go off in a number of directions. You also have the benefit of being able to see everyone on the screen and you can share your screen and use it to display family pictures or a pedigree chart. As an added bonus you can record the hangout, allowing you to save it as a video file and uploaded it on You Tube. Again you can make it public to share it with other family members or keep it completely private. Keep in mind a Google+ Hangout constitutes a group interview and can be a little more difficult to manage. Be sure to read the following section on group interviews. Depending on your circumstances, you may have to enlist a variety of methods to communicate with your long distance relatives. However, always make every attempt to use the technique that will encourage the most detail in a relative’s response, will allow for the least amount of misunderstanding, and will provide an efficient manner for following up.
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The Group Interview
Group Interview Tip
At some point, you may want to try a group interview. Group interviews can be successful because they can spark memories encouraging one story to lead to another. Group interviews are also advantageous because you may obtain different perspectives from a single-family event. I have often found one member recalls a detail that totally escaped the other relatives. I have also discovered that not all family members are privileged to all information. You will find with group interviews that some relatives have been given access to more information. Sometimes this is because of their age, or ranking in the family or relationship with an ancestor. Of for a private conversation later. One downside to group interviews; they can be hard to control. I would suggest an individual dialogue to start and work up to group meetings. Having a partner to help you handle a group can also make the process less overwhelming. Consider setting up a video camera or audio recorder in the room. Start the dialogue with a few gentle questions to initiate the conversation. Your family members will feed off one another and great discussions will happen. Although recording equipment will capture most of the exchange, I would also encourage you to have someone in the background taking notes. People talk over one another and sometimes things get muddled on a recorder or camera. I have used someone to take notes along with a tape recorder so that nothing was missed. Don’t expect to take notes yourself,
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Group interviews can be a planned event or you can take advantage of a family gathering to use this technique. For instance, get-togethers like Thanksgiving, Christmas, family reunions, birthdays, and anniversaries are all opportunities where reminiscing happens and can be captured for your family history stories
course if this becomes apparent in a group interview, you may want to single them out
you will be far too busy listening, drawing out information and directing the conversation to the next question. I would suggest you have a list of prepared questions. When the conversation comes to a lull inject another question or probe for more details regarding the most recent discussion. Once you’re comfortable with taking on multiple family members, you’ll find it can be very rewarding.
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After the Interview
The interview is over but your work has just begun. As soon as possible, review your notes. The longer you leave those notes the less likely you will be able to reconstruct the interview. Abbreviations and short sentences lose their meaning. Transcribe your audio or video recordings while the conversation is still fresh in your mind. Be sure to note the date, the family members name and the location of the interview. Don’t be afraid to take a picture of that person and record it with your information for future generations. You have just created a first-hand account of a person’s life and experiences, great notes now and documentation of the time and place will make sure your information stands the test of time for future generations. Saving Your Audio and Video Files Process your recordings and save them to several sources. There are many options available today. Download the files to your computer with several backups; options include a CD, jump stick, an external hard drive or the cloud. While cloud storage may cost you a few dollars, they are a great opportunity to save your audio or video recordings offsite and safe from potential damage. Once you’ve saved your files, it is time to get down to the business of transcribing your interview. You are forewarned, this is a painful and mind-numbing chore and where many researchers fall down. However, should your audio or video files become lost or damaged or unable to open having a paper copy will be appreciated. Let’s face it, technology does change very quickly.
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Transcribing the Interview Transcribe your interview exactly, word for word. You may wish to clean up words that add little to the conversation for example the “ehs”, “ahs” etc. If your family member references a picture or document that he or she is talking about, you will want to insert a notation at this point. Also, don’t be afraid to make a note in your own genealogy journal with respect to the interview. Be sure to note the interviewee’s mannerisms, body language and mood as you moved through the interview. Note your own reactions to answers and your overall impressions of the interviewee, the interview itself and the answers given. Once that painful task is done, make several copies, one for you, one for your interviewee. At this point, you also have the option of sending a copy to your local historical society or museum should they have an oral history collection. You can also make copies as gifts for family members. Citing Your Family History Interview Your audio and or video interview along with transcription is archival material. Moreover, your interview should be referenced when using it to write your family history stories. The interviewee is listed in the citation as the author, the title, place and date of the interview. For example: Lynn Palermo, Interview with Ruth Vogel, Simcoe, Ontario, Canada, May 3, 1982. You can also include the holder of the transcript. You want to make it clear to the reader how they could obtain the original records. For more information on how to cite
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your family history interviews consult Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills. While it takes practice to perfect your interviewing skills, once you completed that first conversation you’ll soon realize that unlocking great information lies within your ability, if you just prepare and learn the finer techniques of guiding the dialogue. Accessing Your Information and Performance The next step is finally the reason you gone through all of this work. Decipher from your notes and any new information or insights you have acquired from the interview. Identify clues or leads that have opened doors for further research or followup questions. Create a research plan based on the information you have uncovered and the missing pieces these interviews have exposed. Who will you interview next based on the information you obtained in this interview? Do you need to do a follow up interview? What was successful about this interview, where did you fail? Evaluate yourself and focus on how you can improve your interview skills and technique for next time.
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What Questions Should I Ask?
Now that we walked through preparing and conducting a family history interview, it’s time to look closely at formulating your questions. Don’t just grab the list included in this eBook and head out the door. Put some thought into which queries. Have a goal in mind. While this guide includes a prepared list to work from, I encourage you to tweak these questions and make them specific to your relative. How can you add to this list? Think about a family member who has passed on, what questions did you miss asking him or her. Add these to your list; don’t let the next opportunity pass you by. Remember that timeline and bio I suggested you complete in the beginning of this guide? Lay it out on a table alongside and create specific questions geared to your ancestor’s life. When you create your list, make every effort to include a combination of factual, reflective and sensory questions. By using sensory, in combination with factual and reflective questions, you’ll initiate some thought provoking conversation with your family member. Anticipate their answers, and be curious, dig deeper. Be prepared with follow-up questions that push beyond the expected responses. Anticipate their replies in advance and prepare possible follow-up questions. It takes some bravery to ask the tough ones, but the rewards will be worth it. Having a great list prepared in advance is essential to a successful interview. However, not just any questions, but ones that will evoke in-depth answers. We all know too well the difference between a closed and an open-ended question. Even an open-ended question can be improved on with the right phrasing.
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The phrasing of your questions is key to getting the most detail out of your subject. Using phrases like “describe for me a time” or “illustrate a moment in your life,” “paint a
picture of” and “tell me about” are all examples of how good questions can be
formatted into great ones.
The Questions in This Guide Each question has been labelled with an F, R, or S to represent factual, reflective or sensory. Factual questions - These questions can be used to break the ice, get your subject talking and fill in the missing pieces of information you may require. It can confirm information you may already know or are hesitant about. Reflective - These questions will provoke personal meaning to an event, item or time in their life. It will help move your answers beyond the factual and put meaning behind them. Sensory questions - Our senses can play an important role in unlocking our childhood memories. They will help recall memories that are attached to the interviewee’s senses. These will help you establish a scene and setting for an ancestors question. You will be able to see, hear, smell and feel their perception of an event.
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Family History Interview Questions
Names and Surnames 1. What is your full name? Why did your parents select this name for you? Do you have a nickname? F 2. What do you know about your family surname? F 3. Is there a naming tradition in your family? F 4. Do you like your name? R 5. Have you ever changed your name? F
Childhood Years 6. When and where were you born? F 7. Did your parents ever describe anything different or unusual about your delivery or the day you were born? F 8. How did your family come to live there? F 9. Did other extended family live in the area? Who? F 10. Describe your childhood house? Apartment, farm etc. How many rooms? Bathrooms? Electricity? Indoor plumbing? Telephones? F, S 11. Describe for me your childhood room? Colours of the Walls, wall paper, furniture? S 12. Where there any special items in the house that you remember or still have? R 13. What pleasant smells do you remember about the house? S 14. Do you remember any unpleasant smells about your house? S
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15. Tell me about your oldest childhood memory? R 16. Paint a picture for me of yourself as a child? R 17. What kind of games did you play growing up? F 18. Describe your favorite toy and why? R 19. What was your favourite thing to do for fun? F, R 20. Did you have family chores? Describe … What were they? F 21. Which was your least favourite chore? Describe for me how you completed that chore. R, S 22. Did you receive an allowance? How Much? Did you save your money or spend it? F 23. Describe your siblings for me? Appearance? Personality? S, R 24. What kind of a relationship did you have with your Mother? Father? Siblings? R 25. Describe for me an example in your childhood that paints a picture of this relationship. S 26. Do you wish your relationship with any of the above was different? Why? R 27. What did your family like doing together? Paint a picture of one such time. F 28. What was school like for you as a child? R 29. What were your best and worst subjects? R 30. Where did you attend grade school? High school? College? F 31. What school activities and sports did you participate in? F 32. What you remember about the fads from your youth? Popular hairstyles? Clothes? R 33. Did your family have money when you were young or were they poor? R 34. How did you know you were poor or wealthy? How did this make you feel? R 35. Who were your childhood heroes, who did you emulate or look up too? Why? F, R 36. What were your favorite songs and music? How did you listen to them? F
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37. What were the everyday sounds in your household that you recall? Describe them for me. S 38. Did you have any pets? If so, what kind and what were their names? F 39. Describe a fun event you can recall with your pet. S, R 40. What was your religion growing up? What church, if any, did you attend? F 41. How do you feel about attending church now? R 42. What do you feel about your religion today? R 43. Paint a picture of a usual Sunday at church. S 44. Paint a picture of a typical family dinner. R 45. Did you all eat together? Who did the cooking? F 46. Can you recall the smells and tastes you encountered at the dinner table? S 47. What sounds do you associate with your childhood memories? S 48. Describe the sounds you woke up to every morning, went to bed to? S 49. What tastes do you associate with your childhood? S 50. Describe your favourite childhood meal? S 51. Who did the cooking in your house? F 52. What tastes didn’t you like as a child? F 53. Describe a time when you ate something you didn’t like? S 54. Is there a specific meal that you recall eating, can you recall how it tasted? S 55. What are some of the most pleasant smells you associate with your childhood? What memories do they conjure up today? 56. Who were your friends when you were growing up? Why? F 57. What did you have in common? Why did you like them? R 58. Describe some of the things you and your friends liked to do together. S, R 59. What world events had the most impact on you while growing up? F 60. Paint a picture for me of the moment you learned of this impactful event. S, R 61. How did it effect you personally, how did it change you? R
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62. How were holidays celebrated in your family? Did your family have special traditions? F 63. Paint a picture for me of one of these celebrations? R,S 64. Do you maintain any of those traditions today? F 65. How is the world today different from when you were a child? R 66. Who was the oldest relative you remember as a child? F 67. Describe them for me. What do you remember about their appearance, how they smelled, how they spoke? S
Spouse, Partner and/or Married Life
68. What is the full name of your spouse? Their siblings? Their parents? F 69. Describe for me the moment you met spouse/partner? F 70. Paint for me a picture of your spouse/partner, the first time you saw them? S 71. Describe a typical date? F 72. Describe the most romantic thing you’ve ever done? R 73. Describe the moment you proposed? Or were proposed to? S 74. How did you feel? R 75. Where did you get married? F 76. Describe your wedding day? S 77. How would you describe your spouse? R 78. What do you admire most about them? R 79. Have you ever been divorced? F 80. What happened to cause the divorce? R 81. What do you believe is the key to a successful marriage? R 82. What does love mean to you? R
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Parenthood 83. Describe the moment you found out you were going to be a parent for the first time? R 84. Were you present at the birth of your child/children? If not, where were you? F 85. Can you describe for me the moment they were born, the sights, sounds, smells, touch? S 86. Why did you choose your children’s names? F 87. What has been your proudest moment as a parent? R 88. What has been your biggest lesson as a parent? R 89. Why did you choose not to have children? R 90. Do you regret having or not having children? R 91. What is your greatest strength as a parent? R 92. What is your greatest weakness as a parent? R 93. How would you describe yourself as a parent? R 94. What principles did you use to raise your children? R 95. How did you raise your children different from how you were raised? How was it the same? R
Career/Jobs and Ambitions 96. What was your profession and how did you choose it? F 97. If you could have had any other profession, what would it have been? R 98. Why wasn’t it your first choice? R 99. What accomplishments are you most proud of in your career? R 100.Illustrate for me a typical day on the job. S, F 101.What was the best job you ever had and why? R 102.Describe the hardest you’ve ever had to work. R 103.What was the worst job you ever had and why was it so bad? R
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104.Was there one boss or co-worker that had an influence on your life? R 105.How much did you make on your first job? F 106.How old were you when you first started working? F 107.How would you describe your work ethics? R 108.When did you retire? F Why? R 109.Is there still something you wish you had accomplished in your career? R
Life in General 110.What is the one thing you want people to remember about you? R 111.If you could have dinner with anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be? Why? R 112.What is the most important thing in life? R 113.Is there anyone in your lifetime you would like to ask for forgiveness? R 114.Is there an event in your life where you would like a do-over? R 115.If you could ask God one question what would it be? R 116.What principles have guided your life? R 117.If you won a million dollars, how would you spend it? R 118.Describe yourself with only one word. R 119.Illustrate for me the most difficult day in your lifetime. R 120.What one thing would you like to change about the world? R 121.What is your vice, the one thing you can’t live without? R 122.What is your most prized material possession? R 123.What is the greatest act of kindness you ever committed? R 124.Do you have any regrets in your life? R 125.What do you believe will happen to you when you die? R 126.What would you like your tombstone to read? R
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General Family History 127.Did your parents or grandparents ever tell you stories about themselves or their ancestors? F 128.Do you have any documents, bibles, pictures or artifacts that have been handed down from your ancestors? F 129.Are there any stories about famous or infamous relatives in your family? F 130.Do you have any recipes that have been passed down from family members? F
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About the Author
Lynn Palermo The Armchair Genealogist
Lynn is a freelance writer and family historian with a particular interest in writing life stories. She lives in Simcoe, Ontario, Canada with her husband and two daughters. Lynn has a background in hospitality management and human resources training. She teamed up with cousin Danette Rossi Taylor in 2008 to author their own family history book, The Waters of My Ancestors. Lynn has written articles for several genealogy magazines, including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle and Discovering Family History. Lynn began researching her own family history over 8 years ago, she had no idea where it would take her, and believes it is a journey of self-discovery. A new wave of genealogist continues to emerge as genealogy transforms into an online hobby. The Armchair Genealogist is a direct result of those family historians who do the majority of their research from their lazy boy and laptop in effort to meet their educational and research needs. The Armchair Genealogist was nominated in 2011 as one of Family Tree Magazines 40 Best Genealogy Blogs.
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Every February Lynn leads hundreds of family historians through The Family History Writing Challenge. This is a 28-day workshop intend to help establish good writing habits while capturing member’s family history stories. Over the last four years of blogging at the Armchair Genealogist, Lynn’s primary focus has been to provide reader’s with the tools to discover their ancestors and to capture those stories as a legacy for the generations to come.
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Thank you so much for taking the time to read The Complete Guide to The Family History Interview. I hope you enjoyed this eBook and you find it helpful in your journey of researching and writing your family history. Perhaps it answered many of your questions and offer you some valuable tools and tips. I’m sure you may have a few questions. Don’t hesitate to ask. Please feel free to leave a comment at The Armchair Genealogist or if you would rather you can email me privately at email@example.com. I make every effort to read and respond to every email. You can also connect with me through these various social media outlets.
Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ArmchairGenealogist Twitter https://twitter.com/LynnPal Google+ https://plus.google.com/100975135623453997339/ posts Pinterest http://pinterest.com/lynnpal/
Copyright 2013 Lynn Palermo. All rights reserved.
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AG, Raymond S. Wright III Ph.D. Research Tip 11: Conducting Effective Interviews . 2011. http://www.genealogy.com/tip11.html. Baum, Willa K. Tips for Interviewers. 2012. http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/resources/rohotips.html (accessed 2012). Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. Interviewing Mom and Grandma: Oral History Interview Tips. 2011. http://www.genealogy.com/95_carmack.html (accessed 2012). Curtis, Dan. Are You Asking The Courageous Questions. July 13, 2011. http://dancurtis.ca/2011/07/13/are-you-asking-the-courageous-questions/ (accessed 2012). —. Avoid These Three Interviewing Pitfalls . December 2, 2009. http://dancurtis.ca/2009/12/02/avoidthese-three-interviewing-pitfalls/ (accessed 2012). —. The 50 Best Life Story Questions. January 2011, 2011. http://dancurtis.ca/2011/01/26/the-50-bestlife-story-questions/ (accessed 2012). —. What To Do When Facing a Reluctant Family Story Teller? June 1, 2011. http://dancurtis.ca/2011/06/01/what-do-you-do-when-facing-a-reluctant-family-story-teller/ (accessed 2012). Powell, Kimberly. How to Interview a Relative. n.d. http://genealogy.about.com/cs/oralhistory/ht/interview.htm (accessed 2012). —. Oral Histories - Interviewing Relatives and Collecting Oral Histories. n.d. http://genealogy.about.com/od/oral_history/Oral_Histories_Interviewing_Relatives_and_Collec ting_Oral_History.htm (accessed 2012). Sturdevant, Katherine Scott. Bringing Family History to Life. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2003. Telling True Stories. New York: Plume, 2007. Photo Credits Willie Cole 45743106 Fotolia.com Shime 38970692 Fotolia.com Gabriele Rohde 38530496 Fototlia.com Alexander Raths 17705959 Fotolia
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