One of the greatest ways to generate family history information is to interview relatives and record their stories. In theory, this is an easy process, but there are several things to consider when planning on interviewing a family member. How should you go about these interviews? What questions are the most important? Should you keep your great-grandmother focused instead of letting her ramble on about who knows what? I can’t answer these questions for you; each situation is different. But I can give you some advice as you gather valuable and exciting information from your own relatives.
There is plenty to do to prepare for a family history interview. Of course you need equipment: paper and pen, tape recorder, smartphone or tablet—we recommend FHmedia!—etc. Then, you need a plan. Even if you don’t stick to your plan at all during the interview, it’s still smart to have a few topics you want information on and specific questions you want to ask. In many situations, it helps your interviewee to have a specific topic to discuss for this specific interview. You don’t want this discussion to go longer than an hour or two for both of your sakes, so narrowing down the scope of the interview will be helpful.
Do some research beforehand about the relative you are interviewing to show your interest and to help that person trigger memories. You can learn the basics, such as names, locations, and a few key dates if you know them.
Beginning the Interview
One thing that is very important and often forgotten is recording the date and place of the interview as well as the names of the interviewer and interviewee. This will give a context for your interview and will help you store and save it later.
Several people suggest having a casual conversation with the interviewee first. It can be nerve-wracking to sit in front of a microphone and give an account of your life, so creating rapport and a comfortable setting with your relative will set them at ease and help them start to remember stories. If your relative is especially nervous, you can go through some sample questions first to help them get an idea for how the interview will go.
What Questions to Ask
The main rule of thumb for interview questions is to avoid open ended questions; these are too narrow in scope, and they allow your interviewee an escape from truly answering the question.
When you ask a question, keep it vague—if you’re too specific, you will be guiding the whole discussion. You’ll be able to learn a lot more by letting the interviewee talk and follow memory trails in their own mind. You should also have several categories or subtopics ready to help them when they are stuck: if you ask them to tell you about their childhood, you can offer subtopics such as food, friends, games/activities, relationship with parents, relationship with siblings, etc. Remember that questions are not just for getting you answers, they are to lead the interviewee down a path that is comfortable. Once one memory is triggered, you will get more information than you expected, and probably not information you have specific questions about.
No matter how you conduct your interview, be sure you document it and save it properly so you can refer to it again and again and share it with your family. Do you have any tips for family history interviews?
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