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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!

Your Genealogical Wish List for the Holidays

As much as we like to give during the holiday season – admit it – we like to receive too.  And as it is possible that the ones you love don’t quite understand how much you love working on your family history, you may just have to give yourself a genealogical gift this year.

What is your wish-list?  I will share mine, and perhaps it will give you some ideas for what you may need or gift ideas for our significant others.  Please know that the following are not endorsements for these products, just a few of my personal preferences.

  1. Subscriptions.  So many business are feeding our need for records.  I have a lot (don’t tell my husband!) of subscriptions to companies online including Ancestry, GenealogyBank, NewspaperArchive, and various genealogical societies whose websites offer more digitized records.  This year I’m planning to give myself a subscription to a new society, one I have been meaning to join.  Maybe it will be the Federation of Genealogical Societies or the Genealogical Speaker’s Guild.
  2. Conferences.  I could attend every genealogical conference in the country this year and still not be satisfied.  I love the feel of conferences, the commraderie, the vendors!  If I had to pick this year (and I really can’t), I think that I would enjoy the National Genealogical Society’s conference in May 2013.  On a personal note, it is located near some family and I could make the most of my visit by seeing them as well.  But let’s face it – its in VEGAS!  I am not a gambler at all, but I love the shows and the buffets.
  3. Books.  I think I would have to dedicate an entire website to the books I love on genealogy. I did an inventory once of all the books I have at Library Thing, but I had to stop once I reached 100 genealogy books, out of sheer exhaustion. Among my long list of published resources, one has been on my list for too long, and I think I just have to get it.  Its Joan L. Sevra’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840 – 1900, available at many stores.
  4. Stories.  It is crucial to keep stories alive.  Names and dates are well and good, but where’s the personality?  Where’s the voice?  My gift to myself will be a way to pass the story along to my siblings, my children, and all my relatives.  I can start small right now by deciding which family I want to highlight, collecting their information, and then choosing a media that best suits my story.  Of course, a Reel Tributes documentary is my first choice!  Talk about giving my ancestors their voices back. For something quicker and less expensive, ReelGenie promises to be an amazing tool. If only it were ready for this holiday season!
  5. Time.  My family thinks I am crazy (for many reasons).   This is mostly because I think a valuable family vacation should be spent in a state and local archives in New York where my ancestors came from.  What’s wrong with having family time in the cemetery, or the court house?  So I think one thing I would really like is my own “vacation” to work on my family history.   I have taken some serious time this year writing about my ancestors.  Now I want to walk where they walked.  This year: New York.  Next year: Scotland!
  6. Answers.  I would like to ask a favor of the universe.  Please send me the names of my fifth great-grandfather’s parents.  I am stuck!  Have you felt this way?  I often say that I am the only person to prove my ancestors were actually dropped by aliens, because there is no other evidence to refute it.  In all seriousness, I have taken to keeping an 8×10 framed photo of great grandpa James Wescott Whitman (1794 – 1878) in my office to inspire me.  So, if the universe is listening, that’s what I want most of all.  More family.

What genealogical treats would you like in you holiday celebrations this year?  I’d love to hear your ideas.  Inspire us with what genealogical gifts you are giving to yourself.  The trick is that when you continue to search out and celebrate your family, it becomes a gift to everyone in your family.  Happy Holidays!

The Titanic, and my Irish vacation

My husband and I have deep ancestral roots that go back to ancient Ireland. So for our thirtieth wedding anniversary we went to Ireland to do a little genealogical research and some sightseeing.  With a Fodor’s guide on my lap, we drove around Belfast, the modern-day capital of Northern Ireland, looking for a place to spend the night. We eventually found a spot that met our needs and reserved a room. Much to our delight, this particular B & B  not only gave us a comfortable bed for the night, and a full Irish breakfast the following morning, but also a story that we would never forget.

Once we got settled into our room, the owner asked us if we would like a tour of this charming old home.  “Dunallan”, we were told, was built in 1881 and had been the home of the Andrews family at the turn of the 19th century.

Mr. Thomas Andrews, Jr. was an Irish business man and shipbuilder.  Okay, I said to myself, that makes sense. Belfast was after all a ship building town. But my ears perked up when I heard that Mr. Andrews oversaw the building plans for RMS Olympic for the White Star Line and its sister ship, the Titanic.  What? Did I hear that right?  The Titanic? Yes, the Titanic.  This serendipitous choice of a night’s accommodation had become an opportunity to touch and experience a little bit of history.

The owner of this quaint old house went on to tell us that Mr. Andrews and his family had lived in that house during the time he worked on building the Titanic. In addition, the design of the fireplace mantels and the adjoining tile work in this home were modeled for use on the Titanic. They were stunning.

We were told that Mr. Andrews was on board the Titanic, and died in the fateful crash.  And he died a hero.  Many survivors recounted stories of Mr. Andrews’ selfless actions which included urging reluctant people to get into life boats. He was also seen throwing deck chairs into the ocean for passengers to use as floating devices.

Gone are my Hollywood images of Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet.  They have been replaced with the thoughts of Mr. Andrews, his wife, and their young daughter. I wonder how they coped with losing a husband and a father, and a man who had designed one of the grandest ships of all time.

RMS Titanic sunk on April 15, 1912.  SS Nomadic is the only ship to survive that was designed by Thomas Andrews, Jr., and remains the only White Star Line ship still afloat.

On this St. Patrick’s Day, tell us about your family’s Irish roots. What stories did you uncover when you returned to Ireland? Are there any stories passed down from your parents and grandparents that you re-tell on special occasions? If so, we’d love to hear them!

How Will You Celebrate the National Day of Listening?

Did you know that the day after Turkey Day is another holiday? Most people don’t know, but we’re here to let you in on a little (but big) secret, so listen up.

Friday, November 25, 2011 is the National Day of Listening. It is considered an “unofficial day of observance.” Americans are encouraged to record the stories of their families, friends, and local communities.  This special day was first launched by the national oral history project StoryCorps in 2008, to be a day set aside for reminiscing, story sharing and creating new memories. So while you’re recovering from the food coma and helping yourself to leftovers, bring the family together for some storytelling. Don’t know where to start? Our friends at AARP have put together a great list of “Story Starters” to give you a helping hand.

For more information about the National Day of Listening, please check out:
http://www.npr.org/series/120540199/storycorps-national-day-of-listening
or http://www.storycorps.org

Photo credit: AARP (Gary Hovland)