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Family History Research: Steps to a Successful Interview

Steps 1-13

Brought to you in association with The Ellis Island Foundation.

In normal conversation, both people talk. Ideas are exchanged. Each person contributes information. The talk flows in unpredictable ways.

Interviews are a little different. One person (you) has a goal. You want to obtain information from another person (let's call him or her "the talker"). You want the talker to feel comfortable, but you need to direct the conversation to the points you are interested in.

You also have to be flexible. Sometimes an unexpected topic can turn out to be wonderful. Other times, you'll need to lead your talker back to the main point — without hurting his or her feelings. This can be difficult, but you will become better at it as you go along — practice will make you skilled. Be patient with yourself and expect some mistakes. To make things easier, keep these steps in mind:

Step 1: Before you interview anyone, give advance warning. Explain what you want to do, why you want to do it, and why this person is important to you and your research. Here's one approach:

Dear Aunt Jesse:

I'm working on a history of our family, and it would be very helpful if I could sit down and talk with you. I'm particularly interested in your memories of my great-grandparents (your mother and father) and the family's early years in Minnesota.

I'd also love to look at any old photographs or documents you have from the early days.

I won't need much more than an hour of your time, and would like to hold our talk at your home. Any weekend day would be fine. Can you let me know a date that is convenient for you?

Thanks so much for your help.

By writing this letter, you've given your relative a chance to start thinking about the topics you're interested in, and you may have even jogged her memory. Of course, not all your relatives will be close by, and your arrangements may be more difficult than "any weekend day." That just makes your writing — and planning — even more important.

Step 2: Prepare for your interview. Find out whatever you can about this relative before the interview. Where does she fit into the family? What documents might she have? What other genealogical jewels might she have? Gather as much information as you can ahead of time about her relationship to everyone in your family. Your parents can probably help you with this.

Step 3: Think out your questions beforehand. Interviewing requires structure. Write your questions on a sheet of paper, organized by subject. One easy way to organize what you want to ask is by years: Start with your relative's earliest years, and then move on from there.

Step 4: If at all possible, bring a tape recorder. A small recorder usually doesn't disturb anyone, and it catches every bit of information, including the way your talkers sound and exactly how they answer questions. If you don't have a tape recorder, ask your parents if you can borrow or even rent one.

Step 5: In any case, bring a notebook and pen. Even if you have a tape recorder, always take handwritten notes. Recorders have been known to break down.

During the interview, write down names and dates, and double-check them with your subject. Facts are important, but the most important information your talkers offer are their stories. Try to capture the way they talk, and their colorful expressions: "That ship was rolling on the ocean like a marble in your hand."

There's another good reason to bring pen and paper with you. You won't have to interrupt when you think of a question; just write a note to yourself so you'll remember to ask it at an appropriate time.

Step 6: Start with easy, friendly questions. Leave the more difficult or emotional material for later in the interview, after you've had time to gain your talker's trust. If things aren't going well, you may want to save those questions for another time.

It's also a good idea to begin with questions about the person you're interviewing. You may be most interested in a great-grandfather if he is the missing link in your Pedigree Chart. But first get some background information about your talker — your aunt, for example. This serves two purposes. First, it lets her know she's important to you and that you care about her; second, it may reveal some other information you'd never have known about otherwise.
Also, when asking for dates, relate them to your talker. "How old were you when Uncle Bill died?" is often a better way of discovering when the event happened than simply asking, "What year did Uncle Bill die?"

Step 7: Bring family photographs with you, and use them during the interview. Look for photos, artwork, or documents that will help jog your subject's memory. Bring the pictures out and ask your talker to describe what's going on. "Do you remember when this was taken? Who are the people? What was the occasion? Who do you think took the picture?" You may be amazed at how much detail Aunt Jesse will see in a photograph.

Step 8: Don't be afraid of silence. You might feel uneasy and want to rush in with another question when your talker stops speaking. Don't. Silence is an important part of interviewing, and it can sometimes lead to very interesting results. Because people find silence uncomfortable, they often try to fill it if you don't — and in doing so, they may say something you might not have heard otherwise.

Sometimes silence is also necessary for gathering thoughts. Don't forget — you are asking your subjects to think back on things they may not have considered in years. Calling up these memories may spark other thoughts, too. Allow your subject time to ponder. You may be thrilled with what he or she remembers.

Step 9: Be ready to ask the same question a few different ways. People don't know how much they know, and rephrasing a question can give you more information. This happens all the time. "I don't know," a relative will tell you, sometimes impatiently. They do know — they just don't know that they know. The most common version of this is when an interviewer asks,"What was your father's mother's name?" The relative answers, "I never knew her. I don't know." But a few minutes later, in response to "Whom were you named after?" this answer comes: "My father's mother."

Try to find a couple of ways to ask important questions. You never can be sure what you will learn.

Step 10: Ask to see any family treasures your relatives own. When your talkers bring out an heirloom, ask them to describe what you're looking at. What is it? How was it used? Who made it? Who gave it to them? Ask if there are any stories connected with it, or any documents.

Step 11: Be sensitive to what you discover. Sometimes people become emotional talking about the past. They may remember relatives long dead, or forgotten tragedies. If your talker is upset by a memory, either remain silent, or quietly ask, "Is it all right if we talk some more about this? Or would you rather not?" People frequently feel better when they talk about sad things; you should gently give your relative the choice of whether to go on.

Step 12: Try not to interrupt. If your talker strays from the subject, let him or her finish the story and then say, "Let's get back to Uncle Moe," or, "You said something earlier about. . ." Not interrupting makes the conversation friendlier, and may lead you to something you didn't expect.

Step 13: Ask for songs, poems, unusual memories. You may discover something wonderful when you ask your subject if she recalls the rhymes she used to recite while jumping rope as a little girl, or the hymns she sang in church. Probe a little here — ask about childhood games and memories, smells and tastes and sounds. Although you are the expert when it comes to your family and probably know what questions to ask, here are a few suggestions:

    Home and community life. "What do you remember about the house you lived in? How many bedrooms did it have? Where did most of the family activities go on? What was the neighborhood (village) like? What kind of people lived there? What did you do for fun? Who else lived in the neighborhood (village, etc.)? What kinds of activities went on there?"

    Personalities and relationships. "Tell me about your parents: What kind of people were they? What was most important to them? Did they have a good marriage? What do you remember most vividly about them? What was your relationship like with your mother/father/sister/brother?"

    Economic conditions. "How did the family earn money? Who worked? How did your family compare to others in the neighborhood — richer or poorer or in the middle? Who handled the family finances? Were there any major economic setbacks? Were there any big successes? What kinds of things did the family spend money on?"

    Family characteristics. "Were there a lot of people in the family who resembled each other? What were the most outstanding family characteristics? Are there any diseases that run in the family? Any physical oddities? Was anyone in our family famous or notorious? Was there a 'black sheep' in the family? Do you remember any big family celebration or event, or a crisis in the family?"

    Questions that explore the links between family members can turn up wonderful anecdotes. Be sure to ask about family "characters," and try to get a sense of how they were received within the family.

    Family facts. You will always be trying to fill in the blanks on your Pedigree Chart and Family Group Sheets. Show your subject the charts and ask: "After whom were you named? Do you know the names of your parents' parents? Do you know anyone who would know more than you do about that branch of the family? Where are members of our family buried? Is there a family burial plot? What did great-grandma, etc., die of?"

    Life in the Old Country and the trip over (for immigrants). "Tell me why you came to America. Did any member of the family come to America before you? Who, when, and why did they? What did you do when you came here? What kind of work did you do in the Old Country? What did you do for entertainment in the Old Country? Do you remember anything about your trip to America?"

    If you are lucky enough to have relatives who remember their immigration, question them carefully. There's a lot of richness — and family history — in those memories.

After the Interview
Your interview should not last more than about an hour. People do best when they are not tired. If you think there's more to talk about, schedule another interview. That will give you time to review your notes and consider any other questions you might want to ask. It will also give your relative time to remember more things.

After you've done the interviewing, your hardest, most important work lies ahead. You have to go through the information and analyze it. What have you learned? Did you discover any new relatives, or find out about something worth following up? How accurate is what you have learned?

If you recorded the interview, transcribe it — that is, write or type up the important things your talker told you. Review the information. Take out your Family Group Sheets and see if you can add to any of them. Maybe you'll have the name of a third son in a family you've never heard of, or the address of a home that your grandparents lived in. Write everything in its appropriate place, and be sure to indicate where the information came from.

There's one last, very important step: thanking your talkers. They have been generous with their time, energy, and memories. Sending them a thank-you note and a copy of the interview (for corrections and additions) is a way to show that you value what they've shared.


Excerpted from Do People Grow On Family Trees? Copyright 1991 by Ira Wolfman and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc.

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