Family History Matters - Part 1

The school year is just around the corner and the days will be turning cooler. As fall and winter arrive, now is the time to start planning out your family interviews.

Preparing for the family history interview

There are many steps to prepare even for the most informal interview.  Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • Am I going to record the interview electronically with audio and/or video? Do I have permission to do either?

Most experts agree that at a minimum you should make an audio recording so that you can spend most of your time listening and interacting with the person your interviewing instead of writing furiously about what you heard, instead of what they said.  Not having an exact transcript can hamper translating the interview into a family history ancestry story later. 

Another consideration on video recording is seeing their face, hand and body gestures.  Maybe you won't notice until you watch the video later that during one story the interviewee gets a long off look or a glint in their eye that what they just told you was only part of the story.  Or you realize their is a hand or body gesture they always do and because it's always part of them you may not notice until later.  These are treasurers to past onto future generations.

  • How can you use the material?

Before you even start the interview, find out if you can you print the interview now or after their death, or if it is to be tucked away for posterity.

  • Be prepared for revelations and things you may not want to hear.

We often hear about the deathbed confession but how you handle the confession or unexpected story of a living relative is different.  You will see them in a different light and your relationship may change.  But remember that these stories often make them more human.  These are the most difficult parts of an interview and may require you to stop...at least for the time being.

  • Where should you conduct the intervew?

Where the interview occurs will make a big difference in the amount and quality of material you'll get.  For example, if you set up a small interview area during a family reunion, you probably are going to get quick and cute stories about "when we were young".  These will be fun and interesting tidbits for your family ancestry history book but there will  be little depth to them.  But this might be just the ice breaker you need to get family members to agree to an interview.

When you set up an interview, decide on how long the interview will go and where it will take place.  Go somewhere there is privacy (so not the coffee shop) and they feel comfortable.  This can be in their house or even consider renting a small conference room at the local library or community center.  Be sure there is power available and arrive early.

Do your research also and know family member names including cousins and aunts and uncles.  Have it out on the table or easy to see so that if you're unsure of a name you can ask them to identify them.  Also an atlas so that place names can be verified and located.  Our ancestors used the same town names over and over to remind them of where they left so is that Oswego in Canada or Oregon or Wisconsin?

Also well known is that memory is not 100% accurate.  Fact check everything after the interview but fight the temptation to point out when their story doesn't fit the facts.  There may be a good reason they want to remember something a certain way...or they just don't remember it well. The interview is not the time to do fact checking and verification. 

Coming up...

Next we'll talk more about preparing for the interview and conducting the interview.  After that will be a discussion on what to do with the interview information.

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