It is likely that you have some valuable but overlooked sources of genealogical gold. You are probably looking right through them as they hang around the food table at the family reunion, ask you embarrassing questions about your love life, and overstay their welcome in your home. Yes, they are your relatives.
Interviewing your relatives is an important step in the research process. They can provide family records and photographs, give you the dirt on other family members, and identify which other people would be beneficial to talk to about the family history. When talking with relatives, you want to collect the same type of information about their lives that you provided about your own when you wrote your biographical sketch.
Your parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are all good candidates for information sources about your family's most recent generations. Talking to relatives provides you with leads that you can use to find primary sources. (For more information on primary sources, see "Finding primary sources" in the preceding section.) You can complete family interviews in person or through a questionnaire — although we strongly recommend that you conduct them in person. For an example of a cover letter to send your family asking for an interview, go to the Family Tree Maker Web site at
www.familytreemaker.com/00 00 00 59.html
There's no easy way to say this, so please excuse us for being blunt — you may want to begin interviewing some of your older relatives as soon as possible, depending on their ages and health. If a family member passes on before you have the chance to interview him or her, you may miss the opportunity of a lifetime to learn more about his or her personal experiences and knowledge of previous generations.
Here are a few tips to remember as you plan a family interview:
1 Prepare a list of questions that you want to ask: Knowing what you want to achieve during the discussion helps you get started and keeps your interview focused. (See the sidebar "Good interviewing questions" in this chapter for some ideas.) However, you also need to be flexible enough to allow the interviewee to take the conversation where he or she wants to go. Often some of the best information comes from memories that occur while the interviewee is talking — rather than being generated strictly in response to a set of questions.
1 Bring a recorder to the interview: Use a recorder of your choice whether it's your computer, an audiocassette recorder, or a video camera. Make sure that you get permission from each participant before you start recording. If the interviewee is agreeable and you have the equipment, we recommend you videotape the session. That way, you can see the expressions on his or her face as he or she talks.
^ Use photographs and documents to help your family members recall events: Often photographs can have a dramatic effect on the stories that the interviewee remembers. If there is a lull in the interview, pulling out a photo album is an excellent way to jump-start things.
^ Try to limit your interviews to two hours or less: You don't want to be overwhelmed with information, and you don't want the interviewee to get worn out by your visit. Within two hours, you can collect a lot of information to guide your research. And remember, you can always do another interview if you want more information from the family member. (Actually, we strongly encourage you to do subsequent interviews — often the first interview stimulates memories for the individual that you can cover during a later interview. Who knows? It might lead to a regularly scheduled lunch or tea time with a relative whom you genuinely enjoying visiting.)
^ Be grateful and respectful: Remember that these are people who have agreed to give you time and answers. Treat them with respect by listening attentively and speaking politely to them. And by all means, be sure to thank them when you've completed the interview.
Before you conduct a family interview, pull together a set of questions to guide the discussion. A little planning on your part makes the difference between an interview in which the family member stays focused, or a question-and-answer session that invites bouncing from one unrelated topic to another. Here are examples of some questions that you may want to ask:
^ What is your full name, and do you know why you were named that?
^ Where were you born and when? Do you remember any stories that your parents told you about your birth?
^ What do you remember about your childhood?
^ Where did you go to school? Did you finish school? If not, why? (Remember to ask about all levels of schooling through college.)
^ Where and when were your parents born? What did they look like? What were their occupations?
^ Did your parents tell you how they met?
^ Do you remember your grandparents? Do you recall any stories about them? What did they look like?
^ Did you hear any stories about your great-grandparents? Did you ever meet your great-grandparents?
^ When you were a child, who was the oldest person in your family?
^ Did any relatives (other than your immediate family) live with you?
^ Do you remember who your neighbors were when you were a child?
^ What were your brothers and sisters like?
^ Did your family have any traditions or celebrate any special holidays?
^ Have any items (stories, traditions, or physical items) been handed down through several generations of the family?
^ When did you leave home? Where did you live?
^ Did you join the military? If so, what branch of service were you in? What units were you a part of? Did you serve overseas?
^ What occupations have you had? Did you have any special training?
^ How did you meet your spouse?
^ When and where did you get married? Did you go on a honeymoon? Where?
^ When were your children born? Do you have any stories about their births?
^ Do you know who in the family originally immigrated to this country? Where did they come from? Why did they leave their native land?
You can probably think of more questions that are likely to draw responses from your family. If you want to see additional hints for conducting interviews, see the Capturing the Past Web site
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