As a journalist, I know that using more than one device is a good idea. There’s no telling when one will not cooperate. I prefer to use a digital sound recorder with an external microphone, and a video camera (with sound) as well. I also take notes and work from a list of questions.
Make sure you have a digital camera to take shots of documents or old photos; bring a small tripod one along (best: those with legs that can be twisted into any angle or used against your arm or shoulder to stabilize the camera). Not expensive, they take up very little room.
A portable scanner – getting smaller and less expensive every year – is another good idea to copy unframed photos and documents; always check the backs of photos and documents for notes, inscriptions, dates, etc. Use your digital camera to shoot framed photos hanging on the wall.
Practice using your equipment ahead of time – so you won’t waste time or annoy the person with technical glitches. Remember to take the lens cap off the video camera! If using battery-operated devices, bring along spares (or chargers). The Boy Scouts have it right: “Be Prepared.”
Read on for more information about arranging an interview, how to interview, questions to ask and sharing information.
ARRANGE THE INTERVIEW
The older your relatives, the sooner you should do this. I often speak of my favorite proverb. An African proverb states: “When an elder dies, it is as if a library has burned down.” That person may be the only source for some details or stories about your family.
Be cognizant of your relative’s age. The very elderly may not be able to focus on a long interview and a few shorter ones may need to be scheduled. They may also digress from the questions asked and it may be hard to keep them on track, but such a rambling may lead to more details. Once you start asking questions, they will begin remembering more.
I once interviewed - by phone - an elderly relative. He didn’t understand why I was so interested in what he remembered from 60 years ago; didn’t I have a life, a family? Eventually, he became much more cooperative. And, once the memory gates had opened, I received a few calls - at 2am - from him as he said “Quick, write down what I just remembered before I forget it again.” Be prepared for similar experiences.
When arranging the session, ask them if they have old family photos, papers, travel documents or life-cycle event papers (such as wedding invitations). Will they allow you to look at them? To make copies? Most people are wary of allowing their original documents or old family photos to leave their homes, so be prepared to make copies or scan them on your visit.
AFTER THE INTERVIEW
Make sure to thank the person, and consider sending a copy of the interview on CD or a transcription of your conversation to them. Their close family members will also appreciate this. A relative may be more apt to talk to you than to their own children or grandchildren, so sharing the information with the person’s family is a very nice gesture.
HOW TO INTERVIEW
The most important factor in an interview is to always ask open-ended questions to which detailed answers are required. Try not to ask questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no.
Decide on what you are hoping to learn from your relative. Are you interested in general family history, or in that person’s own immediate family and his or her own parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. Try to determine what you want to learn, and use appropriate questions to elicit that information. See below for links to lists of questions.
Bring a copy of your family tree for them, as it currently exists. Bring another copy for yourself to make notes on. If you already have old photos showing them, their parents, grandparents or other family members, bring copies for them. The images may stimulate the gates of memory.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
There are many resources out there offering lists of questions that can be tweaked to your needs. Here are some offering questions and more interview tips:
-- Kimberly Powell of Genealogy.about.com offers 50 questions.
-- Laurence Harris (MyHeritage’s UK head of genealogy) offers 10 interview tips.
-- Family Tree Magazine’s 20 questions for interviewing relatives.
-- Storyarts.org has an article on collecting family stories.
-- Jennifer Geraghty-Gorman’s blog – The Search for Anne and Michael – offers questions for interviews, some geared to those from Ireland.
-- FamilyArchives.com has several articles on the art of interviewing, questions to ask and more.
SHARE THE INFORMATION
Why should we share this information? One important reason is so the information won’t be lost, other relatives can enjoy it and it may well bring back their own memories.
Where should we share it? One of the best places is to post it on your family website at MyHeritage, where you can include photographs, documents, video and audio recordings and make them available to everyone in your family.
Here’s why I am so personally passionate about sharing this information:
A first cousin had interviewed my great-grandmother in the early 1960s (she died in 1963), and had several old reel-to-reel tapes of the hours-long interview, stored in his garage. I had asked about them for years; he always said he would send them. He never did. Then Hurricane Katrina struck and destroyed his home near New Orleans. The tapes were lost forever. I can only imagine the important information that could have been gleaned from that interview. Don’t let this happen to you and your family.
Who have you interviewed? How did it go? What did you discover? What are your tips for interviewing relatives? Share your comments below.
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