Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Interviewing People for Family History

Since the holiday season is upon us, I thought I would share some insights I have gathered recently about how to get family history information.

When we met for Thanksgiving, I had one question prepared for asking.  I have found that some people get nervous when you ask them for a formal "interview."  They might be afraid they don't have the answers, and it feels more like a test. And they wonder what you are going to do with the information they provide.   So I try to have informational conversations.  And since I'm being sneaky that way, I try not to ask too many questions.  I turned on the video for my camera, put the camera down so it didn't look like I was videotaping, and asked my question.  The reason I videoed it was because I was afraid I would forget something, so it was more like tape recording.  I have watched this video since then, and here's what I learned.

1.  Having only one theme question is a great idea.  Of course it has to be something that generates conversation, so ask open ended questions.  Something that starts with "Can you tell me about the time..." or "What was such and such like?,"  where such and such can be a location, event or person.  Taking something to talk about, like a photo, might help.  This, of course, can backfire, and not be a subject that is interesting enough for a long enough conversation.  Or it might be too controversial to discuss.  You can have a backup question that you can save for later on in the conversation, or you can just let it go.  Asking a different question right after your flopped question might clue them into the fact that they are being interviewed.

2.  Having follow up questions or an idea of what it is you want to know would have been a good idea.  I found that I kept trying to think of questions, and by the time I thought of them, I was waiting for a lull in the conversation to ask, and then they seemed to be the wrong time to ask, and I didn't follow up on some interesting thing that was said.  Following the conversation as it is rolling is a much better idea, even if it is harder to do.

3.  Asking in front of other people is a great idea.  They can add in what they know. And they can correct each other, and you can learn where the discrepancies are.  They also help by asking their own questions, so it keeps it more of a conversation instead of an interview.  The bonus is that the questions might not have been something you thought of.   Once, during my very first interview, my daughter asked my sister-in-law if she had her own room as a child.  I would never have thought to ask that. I thought I knew, but it turns out that they had an uncle who was also living with them, so she shared a room with her sister.

4. Sitting closer to the interviewee would have been a good idea.  There are times when I couldn't hear the conversation (both in real life and on the tape) because other people walked between us and were having their own conversation.  There was a conversation off to the side, and sometimes it drowned out our conversation.

5.  Sitting in a better lit location would have been nice.  The picture quality is awful, but since that wasn't my main objective, it isn't a big problem.  If I had planned it, I might have set up the area better before the guests arrived.

6.  There are other people who know things.  One thing I realized is that my older brother remembers a lot more things than I do.  He would be a good person to ask too.  Also, my mother seemed to direct a lot of her conversation to my sister-in-law, maybe because she thinks we know most of what she knows, so I think she would be a big source of information as well.  I did turn the camera towards other people in the conversation from time to time, but mostly I kept it in one spot, so it wasn't obvious that I was working it.

7.  The timing of the question is critical.  You want to ask when people are resting, not when they are about to get up to do something else.  The less they have to do instead of talking to you, the better!  I asked after we were done eating and had moved to the living room to digest our food.  Also, if you work in your question when someone has brought up a topic about the past or about something related to your question, that's an extra bonus.  Then it is more of a conversation than an interview.

8.  Videoing / tape recording is a great tool.  I had forgotten many rich details, and am glad that I did it.  If you can't do any of those, go to the bathroom (or someplace else) after the conversation is over, and jot down your notes.  Try to record who said what.  It is very easy to forget the details. You want to get the facts as they were told to you, not as you digested them.    Recording them while they are fresh in your mind is the best way.

9.  Do not rehearse the question ahead of time.  Just have a general feeling of the question you want to ask.  I phrased my question very awkwardly, which maybe helped the "conversation" aspect of it.  Also, because it was awkwardly phased, I could ask it again, better phrased, to keep the conversation going.

10.  Do ask questions.  You will learn more about the people you are talking to and about your family.  And they will feel more valued that you care enough to learn about them.

Writing down the information is another bonus.  It doesn't have to be perfectly done.  You can write down what you learned on your blog, or maybe make one of those photo books or scrap book.  Or just write your notes on a sheet of paper and put the paper in the family Bible.  You don't have to be a genealogist to do this.  And if you are, this information will make your genealogy much less dry and so much more interesting.


Shari said...

This is really great advice. Thanks! Hope your family history comes to life for you...

Allie said...

This is really great advice, thank you!