More about interviews

Genealogists spend a lot of time in archives, but it is also important to talk to people.

This is a little follow-up on an article my friend Judy Segerdell Langston wrote about a year ago. I use her opening phrase “Many genealogists will tell you there is one thing they regret the most. They did not sit down and talk to older living relatives about the family when they had the opportunity”.

I can relate to Judy’s claim and this is meant as an inspiration to get these talks done.

I am sure you can think of who you need to talk to, but let me list some suggestions. Not all of these may be relevant to you and you need to prioritize the list.

  • Your parents
  • Your grandparents
  • Your grandparent’s siblings
  • Your uncle and aunts
  • Your cousins
  • Former neighbors of the above
  • Former co-workers of the above
  • Former co-members of the above in various organizations, churches etc.
  • Former class-mates of the above
  • Former fellows in military services of the above

While you most likely know whom of your relatives you can talk to, you may be learning about the persons on the last part of this list as your research progress. This means that you may need to come back to this step several times.

If you are talking to your parents or grandparents, who you see on a regular basis, you can be a little more informal than if you are talking to a person you have a more distant relationship with. With your parents/grandparents you can drop in a question about ancestors at family get-togethers. However, with your close relatives it can still be smart to agree on a time to sit down and talk about family.

I will share a few thoughts about doing these interviews. I am certain that you are able to figure out to what extent my suggestions apply to the different persons you want to talk with.

As you have searched your mind for what you know about your family, I am sure you have come up with several questions you would like to find the answer to. Those are the first questions you want to pose to your closest family when you meet the next time.

If you go on an internet search engine and write “Interview Genealogy” you will get a lot of webpages with suggestions for questions to use in a genealogy interview.  You will find lists ranging from 20 questions to several hundreds. In my opinion it is better to have a few good questions than a whole lot of questions on topics that might be interesting, but of lesser importance. This is also related to how long time it takes to “get through” you interview. Depending on who you are talking with, it might be an idea to decide and/or agree in advance on how long your talk should last. About all else, don’t wear out your interviewee!

It might be smart to make a list of “main questions”. These are things you feel you need to cover. To each of these questions you can have a list of additional questions that you return to if time and situation permits.

Even though you have a well prepared list of questions you should also be open to letting your interviewee talk freely. Some people are good storytellers and by letting them talk you might get a lot of interesting and fun information that you hadn’t thought of asking about. These are things you need to take on the fly as your talk progress.

I am not going to get into details as to what you should ask about. Why don’t you do the internet search I referred to above and look at the suggestions you find there? You need to pick out the questions that are important to you. It can save you a lot of time if an older family member can tell you about your common ancestry. I really think you should start by asking about this. The main thing though, in my opinion, is to try to learn as much as possible about the things you will not find in the Church and census records. I am thinking of family traditions. How your ancestors were as persons? Did they have hobbies? Did they like to tell stories? You name it!

The one thing you need to do is to clearly identify who you are talking with. If you are talking to distant relatives it might be smart to state how they are related to you. If you are talking to a former co-worker, neighbor or friend of one of your ancestors it is important to record which ancestor he/she relates to. If you are using some sort of recording device, you can have the persons you are talking to state this information themselves at the beginning of the recording. That way you get the voice(s) connected to the name. This is especially important if there is more than one person talking in the recording.

If you use some kind of recording equipment; be sure to know how to operate it. Test out microphones and be sure that they will pick up little old aunt Anna’s weak voice. Think through what you will need of memory cards, tapes and batteries.

It is hard to try to calculate how long time you need to transcribe your recorded talk. It all depends on how fast people talk and how fast you write. As a general rule you should expect to use about 6 hours to transcribe every hour of taped conversation.

There are many different software applications that can help you speed up the transcription. Make an internet search and see if you find something that meets your needs.

I hope this has given you some ideas about talking to people about your ancestors. Even one sheet of handwritten notes may be gold worth if you decide to go all-in for genealogy.

Tell me what you think about this article!