Hopefully at some time during the research of our family history we will have the opportunity to talk with an older generation relative. The thought of “interviewing” someone can be a little intimidating. Here are some hints that can make it easier.
HINT: If possible, mail or email your relative a list of the questions you intend to ask ahead of time. Also ask them if they may have any photos they could share with you. This gives them a chance to really think about the answers or even to look up information that they may have. Who knows, they may be sitting on a gold mine of old pictures and documents?
HINT: When making the list of questions you want to ask, place the ones you feel are the most important at the top. Then continue with your questions arranging them from most important to the ones that don’t really matter if they do not get answered. Be as specific as you can. Remember the interviewee can’t read your mind so they may not know or understand what kind of information you actually want from them.
HINT: While conducting the interview try not to respond to the person while they are talking. I have done a lot of counseling throughout my life. One thing you do while listening to the other person is to say something like “uh huh” or “Okay” so they know you are actively listening to them. This does not work when interviewing! When I interviewed my in-laws I wasn’t thinking about me responding to them during it. When I got home and I listened to the tape I could hear these annoying little phrases and even a weird giggle that I did when something was funny. It was distracting while trying to transcribe the tapes and at a couple of points I missed a word or two because I was responding as they spoke. Just be aware that you are taping and every noise will be recorded.
HINT: Interviews can be a little scary to both the interviewer and the interviewee. It is best to try to start with questions that are easy to answer, just to put the other person at ease. Fact based questions are usually the best kind to start with. They don’t require too much thinking and can set the flow for the rest of the interview. Just remember to ask questions that are non-threatening or at least ask them in a non-threatening way. An example would be, don’t ask about your Uncles affair with a waitress that resulted in a child, a divorce and a scandal. You can ask something like “How many children did Uncle “Bob” have altogether?” This gives the interviewee the opportunity to answer the question giving information they feel comfortable with and possibly giving you the story of your Uncle. You don’t want to ask any questions that may insult your family. A side note here is: if you know this relative well enough to ask these kinds of questions then go for it. I would first ask if they felt comfortable answering questions about uncomfortable events.
HINT: When preparing your list of questions the best thing to do is to take a look at the family line of the person you will be interviewing. How are they related to you? Next take the time and write down any questions you have from this line. Are there any holes you would like filled in? Any dates, locations or names that are missing? Unless this person is also into Genealogy they may not know much information past 2 or 3 generations. So try to concentrate on developing questions covering just a few generations back. The goal with creating your family history is to not only know “Who” your Ancestors are but “How” they lived. The more you know about them the better rounded your family history will be.
HINT: When recording it is good to begin your interview by stating the date, location, and the persons’ name you are interviewing. This way if you don’t get it transcribed quickly you will not have to try to remember the “who, what, or where”.
HINT: It is important to find a place where you and the interviewee can be comfortable and have some privacy. All interviews should be on a one to one basis. Otherwise things can get confusing or background noise can make it hard to hear answers, both in person and on tape. When I interviewed my in-laws a few years ago we set everything up in their living room. I recorded my Mother-in-law first then my Father-in-law. My husband was also present. The first interview went great. When it was my Father-in-laws turn it became quite apparent why you should only have only one person present during an interview. My Mother-in-law carried on a conversation with my husband (he did try to keep it quiet and asked her to stop a couple of times), she would correct my Father-in-laws answers and she even made a phone call during the interview. When I got home and began to transcribe the tapes I had a difficult time deciphering several of my Father-in-laws answers.
HINT: Be prepared that there may be some questions that you may ask that the person does not want to answer. Some memories can be painful and are not easy to talk about. Do not press the issue. Just move on graciously. The person you are interviewing will appreciate it and who knows, they may just decide to answer the question later on because of your considerate reaction.
HINT: If there is no way you are able to record the interview then you should try to take good notes. Still use your list of questions so you keep on track. When I visited some cousins in Missouri I had my list of questions and was thoroughly prepared to tape the interview. However, once we got there I realized it wouldn’t be possible. They had prepared dinner for my husband and I so the first hour was just eating. Then we all sat around the kitchen table and talked. There was my Cousin, his new wife, his 3 daughters and their families. There were too many people to record comfortably. So I just asked questions, took notes, and enjoyed myself.
Remember: Sometimes the stories a person will tell during this time are worth more than having all your questions answered. So be flexible. If you have asked the most important questions first then let the person reminisce.
I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, crafter, reader, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Amazon.com: Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter.