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!