Like many family history enthusiasts, you may recall a conversation with a senior member of your family from years earlier, wishing you could recall more specific detail of the people, places, and events discussed. This third step is arguably the most important stage of your research and, in some ways, could be more important than the two preceding steps. The reason that interviewing relatives is listed third is so that you can develop some basic skills through steps one and two in organizing what will soon be a mountain of information about your ancestors. A partially complete pedigree chart, an old letter or journal, yearbook or faded photograph can all serve as great starting points when you finally speak with a more senior member of your extended family.
As you prepare for this phase of your research, you should first identify several of the most senior members of your family for both paternal and maternal lines. Once you have compiled your list of potential interview subjects, rank order them by considering some of the following questions:
· What is your personal relationship with the person
(Do you know them well or hardly at all?)
· What is your geographic proximity to the person?
· What is the individual’s current state of health?
· Is the individual closely connected to the area you’re researching?
· Does this person have a reputation as being the ‘family historian’?
· Has this person maintained contact with other family members?
There are no hard and fast rules, but you should use your common sense. Not everyone will be as enthusiastic as you are in digging up the past. In some cases, painful memories can make this a very delicate process even with relatives that share you interest in preserving the past. You will learn a tremendous amount with each interview you conduct – both about the process and about your family. Refine your techniques with each new interview and you’ll see why this is such an important and rewarding aspect of genealogy.
TOOLS & TIPS
Depending upon your answers to the questions above, you will likely use different methods for different interview candidates. If you’re close with a grandparent, great aunt or older cousin, a phone call may be an easy way to get started. For relatives that you don’t see very often, you may find it helpful to send a detailed letter about what you’re working on and how they can help. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope to stimulate a more timely response.
Postcards or letters can also be used to pre-announce a phone call. This will give your relative a chance to think about some of your questions and perhaps retrieve some of their own treasured documents and photographs from their hiding places. If you find that an older relative has email, send a brief message first to establish contact and await their reply. Email can help save time, but should not be your only means of correspondence when other methods are available to you.
Whenever possible, try to obtain permission to record face-to-face or phone interviews. Even the most diligent listener can miss a small detail while trying to take notes, listen, and guide a conversation in certain directions. Audio recordings are often better than video since the presence of a camera may alter the content of your discussion. By using audio only, there is a better chance that a more natural conversation will commence shortly after pressing record.
With each interview, have at least three specific goals to discuss. A goal can be as simple as a maiden name for a female ancestor or as detailed as the story about how and when your ancestors first came to America. You’ll want to gently guide the discussion to achieve your goals, but it is important that you don’t interrupt or challenge the information being shared. Even the most far-fetched story, passed down through several generations, is likely to contain some element of truth that you can verify through further research. Let you relative enjoy their trip down memory lane, you may be surprised at what you hear.
by Daniel M. Lynch for the Connecticut Society of Genealogists, Inc.