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Guide 2 Genealogy   >   Sources   >   Interviews

 

Conducting Genealogical Interviews


When researching your family history, you should always be looking to uncover information that may lead to other persons or sources of information, and one of the best ways to do so is by conducting interviews. How you approach your relatives is critical. While many people, particularly older relatives, may welcome the opportunity to reminisce and share the memories of parents and childhood, you should take care to proceed tactfully. It is not unusual for people to be sensitive about being questioned, especially about personal and family issues.

Before arranging interviews with unknown relatives, you should familiarize yourself with the techniques that oral historians use. The interview process itself can be divided into three stages: the initial contact, the interview itself, and the pursuit of all new clues.

If you plan to interview a close and known relative, such as an aunt, uncle, or grandparent, you can arrange the interview by telephone. Otherwise, your initial contact should be by letter, as this will allow you to properly introduce yourself and explain what inspired you to begin your genealogical researches. A letter also provides you with an opportunity to tell how you found the relative's name and address and what information you seek. Finally, in your letter you can also inform your relative of any kind of special equipment, such as a tape recorder, which you would like to bring to and use at the interview.

After sending your letter, give your relative some to receive it and consider your request, then telephone to set a specific date for the interview. During the phone call, find out whether your relative would object to you using a tape recorder, many of which are now quite unobtrusive. You can point out the value of recording the entire conversation, which you could not do using pen and paper, but do not insist. During both the initial phone conversation, (and in fact during the entire interview process), your goal is to instill trust and confidence, and not inhibit the person in any way.

During the interview, your questions should be simple, direct, and focused on the type of biographical and vital information that you need. Typical questions might be "Do you remember the names of your grandmother's brothers and sisters?", "When did your grandmother marry?", and "When did your father's mother immigrate to the United States?". Sometimes relatives may not be able to recall specific dates and ages, but you can sometimes compensate for this by associating questions with particular periods in your relative's life or with a major episode in American or world history. Such questions might be "Were your grandparents still alive when you were in high school?" or "Was your grandmother alive during the First World War?"

Sometimes your relative may express an interest in what you are doing. In this case, you should offer to share information. People tend to be more generous if they know they are not doing all of the giving. Additionally, you will probably gain a valuable correspondent, a source of further information, and a friend.

After the interview, you should listen through the tape carefully, and several times if necessary. You want to make sure that you extract all the information which is pertinent to your research. The interview may well suggest new questions and further avenues of research and thus lead to follow-up meetings with this relative.

When an oral interview is not practical because of distance, expense, or sickness, an alternative option is to prepare a questionnaire. In this case what you should do is outline what you already know about each individual or family, and leave space for your relative to complete the missing information.

To summarize: Contacting your relatives, and conducting interviews and questionnaires can be very rewarding. And, if done well, you will find that they are able to generate lots of information which can greatly help with your genealogical researches.


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