Tips for Interviewing a Relative- Method of Genealogy Research

One of the methods used in doing genealogy research is through interviewing a relative.  When sitting down with someone and listening to their story through questions that you are asking can be very interesting. There is a lot of information that you can learn from interviewing older members in your family. Your parents, grandparents or even aunts and uncles can be a wealth of knowledge. They may have had the opportunity to meet or even got to know ancestors that you didn’t.  So through their oral recount, you can collect some very good facts.

Story telling has been a tradition in many families and these stories can be filled with a lot of information that you might not be able to find elsewhere.   They add  real emotion and feelings to your family history.

One of the difficult parts of oral genealogy research is that it can’t always be verified.  The person you are interviewing  may or may not be able to give you dates, names  and locations.

As we all know sometimes storytelling can become embellished to make it more exciting or important. That is true with most storytelling.

If you have someone you would like to interview, here are few  tips on  interviewing that may help.

  • Contact the person you would like to interview and set up a time to meet with them. Depending on if you have to travel a great distance, you may want to be sure to set plenty of time with them, so that you don’t have to go back to finish your interview. If you live close by, then you might be able to set up a series of meetings.
  • A day or two before the interview, contact the person to be sure that your meeting is still set. With older people, they sometimes have good and bad days and may not feel up to meeting you at the last minute, so you may  need to reschedule.
  • Depending on the person you are interviewing, it may be helpful for them to have a copy of the questions you are going to ask them in advance. This gives them time to think about things. You may also want to ask if they have any photos or memorabilia that they would be willing to show you in relation to the questions you will be asking.
  • You may want to think of something to give them as a token of thanks for letting you interview them. It can be something as simple as a box of chocolates or a gift card to a local store or restaurant. This will let them know how much you appreciate them and their time.
  • You will need to decide how you will record the information during the interview. Do you plan to videotape it, audio record it or simple take notes? If you plan to video or audio record you will want to check with the person ahead of time to see if they are OK with this method. Some people are very intimidated about having themselves videotaped or audio recorded.  Audio recording can be  somewhat less intimidating.  Either of these two forms of media make a great addition to your family history. The advantage of video or audio is that you capture the image of the person,  their voice,  along with every word, which saves you from worrying about missing information as the person is talking and you are taking notes.
  • Putting together a list of questions to ask helps keep the conversation more in line with the information that you are interested in. Put down as many questions are you can think of. You may not be able to get all of them answered, but having too many questions is better than if you run out and get home to realize that there was other information you should have asked. The list of questions is also helpful when the interviewee begins to stray off the subject. If that happens you can politely bring them back on course with asking the same or another related question.
  • Make sure that the equipment you are using is in good working order. Make a list of what you need to bring, such as power cords, batteries, etc.
  • If you are videotaping it will be important to set up your camera on a tripod. You will need to make sure that you are close enough to the interviewee to get clear audio and have good lighting.
  • It is best if there are as few distractions as possible, such as the TV or a radio playing. Set the camera off to your side slightly so you can control it easily. The person you are interviewing does not have to stare straight at the camera.
  • To start an interview, make sure that the interviewee is comfortable and relaxed. Start with some light conversation and thanking them for taking the time to meet with you. Keep in mind that older people can tire easily, so you may need to take short breaks.  See to it that they have something to drink, especially if they have been talking for some time.
  • Depending on the time that you have set for your interview and the length of the answers given, will of course determine  how many of your questions you will get answered. Put your most important questions  at the start. If the conversation leads to  you thinking of questions that you don’t have on your list, you may want to quickly write them down, so that you don’t forget to ask them.
  • You may want to ask if they have any photos or documentation, etc that they can share with you.  Don’t ask to borrow  them, but instead ask if you can take a photograph with your camera or phone. Older people can be very attached to these types of things and don’t want them out of their possession. Things like war metals, letters, certificates, documents, photos, etc., can help verify the oral information that they are sharing.
  • As  you come to the end of your interview time, you will want to double check your list of questions. You can also ask your interviewee if there is anything  that they would like to add to your family history.
  • Thank them and present them with the token gift you have for them.
  • Be sure that they have your contact information.  They think of something else  and can contact you.

Everyone is different and every interview is unique.  Collecting family history through oral interviewing can be very interesting and very rewarding. Learning about someone’s life on a personal level is an honor.  

Some of the things mentioned here  are pretty obvious, but you would be surprise how things can get over looked. I hope these tips are helpful to you in your genealogy research.  Please contact me if you have any questions.

Wishing you all the besting in your seeking.