The Blog

Holiday Gatherings: A Perfect Time for Family History

holiday dinner

As we prepare for the holidays, let us take advantage of the time we spend with relatives to ask about their own lives or the lives of ancestors they may have known, or might have inherited documents or stories about.  One of the most effective family history research tools we have is our living family.  Holiday gatherings are a perfect time for meeting with family members for stories or an interview.  Planning ahead is the key to success.

To prepare for an upcoming gathering where you might be able to find out more about ancestors, try one or more of these ideas:

Decide which family groups or stories you want to talk to relatives about.  It’s best to focus and not try to overwhelm the people you are interviewing with all your questions on the family.  Choose one or two family groups to start with, for example, ask about Great-Grandpa’s three wives and 17 children, or if Great-Uncle Dolphus really did go west to pan for gold in ’49?  Often, those stories will lead to others.

Ask ahead for an interview.  Call or contact the people you want to talk to at least a week or two before your holiday gathering. Let them know what you’d like to talk about and what to expect.  Giving your interview subject a chance to think about the ancestors you are interested in gives them time to think and they’re less likely to be stumped for story ideas.  They may even remember some family photos or memorabilia to bring with them.  Most of all, they will likely be more willing to talk if you ask ahead than if the first they hear of it is over the table at the holiday feast, just as they’re contemplating their after dinner nap time.

Read up on interview techniques and questions.  I like the basic interview questionnaire prepared by FamilySearch (a printable pdf document).  Other great resources are Kimberly Powell’s article, “50 Questions for Family History Interviews,” or  Alice Chapin’s book Reaching Back. AARP also has some fun Story Starters. Many of these are designed for a person to record their own family history, but the same questions can spark family stories of ancestors of long ago.

Plan how to record the interview: There are three basic types of ways to record your interviews.  1) Taking notes by hand, 2) audio recording, or 3) video.  The pros and cons are:

  • Taking notes by hand.  Pro:  The least intimidating to the shy interview subject.  Con: It’s slow, you are likely to miss things, or garble your own notes.
  • Audio Recording.  Pro:  Not very intimidating or distracting to the interview subject.  Con:  Background noise!  Even worse is when you have more than one person in the room answering questions over one another, its hard to transcribe later.
  • Video.  Pro:  This is my favorite method.  If multiple people speak, it is easier to distinguish the speakers.  You also have some great footage for future video productions, such as a Reel Tributes personal documentary.  Con:  Your interview subject may be so shy or uncomfortable in front of the camera (How’s my hair?  Is this my best side?) that you may not get the information you need.

It’s not a test.  Many interviewees may feel like the interview questions are more like test questions, despite your best efforts to make them comfortable.  Start off with something you know that they know, not a question they may not have the answer to.  Start with leads like, “I heard you got in trouble for smashing a cookie jar when you were little…”  or “Didn’t you have a dog named Buddy…?”  Also try taking photos with you that might inspire stories.

Accept now that you won’t get everything in one interview.  Sometimes we are so anxious to get the information we want, we may cut off some stories the family member is telling to get to what we believe is the “meat” of our interview.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy. You won’t get everything you want in one interview.  What you will do, though, is build a stronger relationship with the interview subject.  This may lead to that person calling up later with photos, memorabilia, or information they found, especially if the interview was a positive experience.

In essence, family history is about family.  Enjoy your time making new memories about sharing old memories, and build those relationships even stronger.  Happy Holidays!

What if I’m Nervous About Being Interviewed?

So you’re feeling a little anxious, shy or self-conscious about being interviewed for your personal history film? You really want to save your memories for your family but when you think about actually doing it, all you can think about is that public speaking class that you took in high school.  Your palms still get sweaty when you recall standing up in front of everyone. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

The concerns

You might be thinking about such things as:  What if I don’t know the answer to a question? What if I trip over my tongue or forget what the question was?  Maybe you’re worried about sneezing or burping during the interview. Or you’re concerned about being surrounded by cameras and lights.

You’re not alone

Well, the good news is you are not the only person who has these sorts of concerns. In fact, most people have never been interviewed on film before.

I’m here to help you get over those nerves.  I have been interviewing folks for fifteen years.  I understand where this nervousness comes from – it comes from a fear of the unknown.

Three reasons why you shouldn’t dread a personal history interview

Reason 1:  You can prepare. Before the actual interview you will have an opportunity to speak with the personal historian who will be interviewing you. You will have a critical part in creating the interview questions.  You will know the answer to each and every question because you will play a role in designing the interview guide yourself.  Know that the personal historian who is interviewing you is not trying to trip you up or turn the interview into an interrogation.   Her goal is for you to look and sound great throughout the interview.

Reason 2:  Editing is magic. Are you worried about tripping over your tongue, sneezing or even burping while on camera?  The beautiful thing about video is that the camera can easily be turned off for a moment and then turned back on when you are ready to resume.  A huge part of making a personal history film is the editing process.  This is when any of the blurps, bleeps or tongue contortions are edited out, proverbially landing on the cutting room floor.

The finished film will only contain the best of the best of your interview.  You will truly rival George Clooney or Audrey Hepburn!

Reason 3: You will feel relaxed. The personal historian takes great care to make sure you are comfortable and relaxed during the interview.  Before the interview begins, she will answer any questions that you might have. She will encourage and affirm you throughout the conversation. Whether it is a need for a bio-break, or the desire to re-phrase the answer to a question, it is the personal historian’s job to reassure you that everything is still okay and on track.

The camera equipment may initially seem imposing to you, but it is the personal historian’s place to create a connection with you. Soon the camera equipment fades into the background and it is the engaging conversation that becomes the focus.

Where do we go from here?

There is a little quote that I like a lot.  It goes like this:

Blessed are they, who know the way,

To bring back memories of yesterday.

Author Unknown

As a personal historian, I take my job and all that goes with it very seriously, and I know that other personal historians feel the same way.  I feel honored to play a small role in preserving your life story.

So, are you feeling a little better about the interview now?  Take a deep breath, and start the process of saving your stories while you’re on a roll.