Tips and Suggestions For A Family History Interview

Informal Interviews Get Genealogy Information

As we come up to the winter holidays, we often get a chance to see relatives that we don't get to see every day. As winter draws near, we spend more time at home, and in many cases, have more time to pursue our genealogy. It is a great time to write down the oral history of the family. And what better way to get the history but by asking members of the family who know all of this great information? The first step in conducting genealogy is to ask for information, particularly your elder relatives and their friends and loved ones.

The best time to conduct a genealogy interview is now. The earlier you ask questions, the more time you have to ask follow-up questions, and the more time you have to collect more facts. People forget things. They might get ill or move away. In addition, death is a sad fact of life. You want to ask your relatives, old and young, before it is too late, while the memories are fresh on their brains.

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How do you conduct a family history interview?

There are a couple of ways that you can get the information you need. The best way is to set up a formal interview. Take your loved one to a quiet place, set up a tape recorder or video camera, and ask your questions. This gives you a chance to ask each of your questions, hopefully with minimal interruption. Since you are taping the interview, you will get a chance to review the answers later to make sure you really understood what your family member was saying.

Personally, I have found it difficult to get a formal family history interview. People are more afraid of what they say in a formal interview, and suspect the reasons for your asking. They may feel like they are not important enough for an interview, and they simply may not want to take the time. They may also feel the pressure of answering your questions correctly, and may not trust their memories to be complete and accurate. People know a lot more than they think, but sometimes it takes a bit of convincing.

The second method is to informally ask a genealogy question during a gathering, and let the conversation flow. This question is usually one about a general topic, such as a particular time in history, or a particular relative who is not in the room. The informal method of asking genealogy interview questions has yielded a great deal more information for me than the formal method. When you use this method, you are asking a group of people, who may be able to collaborate and get you a more accurate or complete answer. Also, other people can chime in and ask questions as well, possibly yielding you better information. If you can, ask an in-law or child ahead of time to ask additional questions, maybe even letting them know what kind of information you are seeking. These questions will keep the interview flowing like a conversation.

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What are the advantages of an informal family history interview?

A more casual genealogy interview does not put the spotlight on any one individual, so your interviewee may be less suspicious, and may be more comfortable in sharing information. In addition, particularly when the relative think that you already know the information, they may be skimpy on the details or hesitant to tell you more. When there are children or in-laws present, particularly if they are interested in the story, the interviewee can tell the people who do not know the story and will provide details they assume you already know.

When you interview a group of people, they may be able to correct each other, and supplement other group member's information, so you are likely to receive a more complete picture. You can get a feel for family secrets if one relative interrupts another one when they are telling a particular story.

Since this method is casual, you can let the conversation flow to other topics, and then ask another family history interview question at another time during the gathering. This gives you time to think of follow up questions. You can also continue the interview in subsequent gatherings. This will give you time to check your notes, gather background information about a particular time period, and think of additional questions.

With other people are also asking questions, you may be able to gather information that you did not consider, or erroneously assumed you knew the answer. My daughter once asked my sister-in-law if she had her own room. I had assumed that she had, but I found out that she had lived with an uncle when she was a child, so she shared her room with her sister.

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What are the disadvantages of an informal family history interview?

Because there is a group of people being interviewed at the same time, they may interrupt each other, or talk over each other. Sometimes information is conveyed in looks and short phrases. Once, I thought I had a thorough understanding of a particular topic but when I transcribed a tape, much of the information was implied or conveyed through looks or nods, and I wasn't sure that my understanding was thorough. As some members lose interest in the topic, they may leave and reenter the conversation. They may break off and start a side conversation with someone, making it more difficult for you to hear the answers to the questions. This also makes it very hard to transcribe the tape when you are done with the interview. In addition, if one person has silenced another person during an interview because he or she wants to keep something a secret, it is possible that that other person will not give you the information when you ask them later in private.

Millionaire Tips on Conducting Genealogy Frugally

  • Take advantage of free opportunities to get tips and advice on conducting genealogy. These genealogy resources will help you become a proficient interviewer and genealogist. The library and the internet have all sorts of information about how to conduct genealogy. There is also a great deal of genealogical information at both of these sources.
  • Interview your family members and their friends for genealogy information. If you have a basic groundwork of information, you will be able to narrow your search for particular information, saving both time and money.
  • Ask people for information, even if you are not sure they know. People may know more information about their ancestors and collateral relatives than you think they know, and may have documentation in their attics and trunks.

Summary

Conducting an informal genealogy interview may be the only way you can gather information that is not written anywhere. People have knowledge, and gathering the information and writing it down is the only way to make sure that the oral history lives on down the generations.

© 2011 Shasta Matova

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Comments: "How to Conduct An Informal Family History Interview" 16 comments

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Millionaire Tips 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks MomsTreasureChest. That is a great idea just to leave the video camera running while chatting with family members about family history. It is so hard to remember everything, and it is very distracting to try to take notes while having a conversation.


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MomsTreasureChest 3 years ago

Great suggestions for gathering and passing on family information. A few times we left the video camera running while just chatting with my grandmoms, I wish we had done it more often and asked more questions about family history. Thanks for sharing!


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Millionaire Tips 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for reading and commenting Audrey - I have used both methods and prefer to use the informal method most of the time. There are some people who will readily talk to you in a formal interview, but most people are just not comfortable with them.


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AudreyHowitt 4 years ago from California

I must say that informal information often seems to lead to really important stuff! Great hub!


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Millionaire Tips 5 years ago from USA Author

arusho - Thanks. Maybe a separate tape recorder for each person, so you can record many conversations at once? They would be difficult to transcribe though! Or I guess you would have to ask them when they were in smaller groups.


arusho profile image

arusho 5 years ago from University Place, Wa.

Good advice, when I talk with my family it is hard to get clear answers because everyone talks at once!


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Millionaire Tips 5 years ago from USA Author

Thank you RTalloni. You're right with the holidays approaching, we get to see more of our relatives, and hopefully learn some new-to-us genealogy information.


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

Interesting, and timely with the holidays that we are preparing for.


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Millionaire Tips 5 years ago from USA Author

Kosmo, thanks for your comment. I think a followup interview would be helpful to answer that kind of question. Then, who knows, you might learn something else the interviewee remembered!


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California

I received such an interview one time on the telephone, regarding my father's side of the family. It worked well except I could have used prior notice to check my facts, some of which I think I got wrong; for instance, my mother's name! Was it Alice Maxine or Maxine Alice? Later!


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Millionaire Tips 5 years ago from USA Author

Eileen - thank you for your offer. I can't think of any English research I want to do right know, but I will keep that in mind.


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Millionaire Tips 5 years ago from USA Author

NYbride - genealogy is an addictive hobby. It is a lot of fun, and you can learn so many things you didn't know about your family. When you start talking about family history, you will find that people will keep bringing up new information over time. Be sure to record that as well.


Eileen Goodall profile image

Eileen Goodall 5 years ago from Buckinghamshire, England

I have an English grave site on HubPages you should have a look to see if I can be of help.


nybride710 profile image

nybride710 5 years ago from Minnesota

I have just discovered findagrave and ancestory.com and can see I about to be pulled into another hobby. This was useful information for starting a diagolue with my own parents while they are still here.


Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 5 years ago from USA Author

Thank you for your comment. You're right, it is important to always be prepared, because you never know when they will be in the mood to talk. Once they know you are interested, you will often get more in bits and pieces as time goes by. Good for you for writing it down!


moonlake profile image

moonlake 5 years ago from America

When I talk to my mother I keep a pen and paper near by. She always says something she never thought to tell me before. If I can keep her from putting my Dad's family down and just talking about them I get more information. She has so much in her head but now at her age it just has to pop out. Enjoyed your hub. I have found a few secrets in my genealogy search.

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