Question Your Family Members

There's nothing quite as deflating as calling your grandmother to share your latest genealogy “find” only to have her reply, “I could have told you that.” Your family members represent a vast source of untapped knowledge about your family history, and questioning them will likely turn up countless interesting details. Contact everyone you can think of, from your ninety-eight-year-old great-grandma to the second cousin you haven't seen since you were kids. Even friends of the family can provide useful details. Everyone, both the old and the young, will have different memories and perspectives. They may recall the same event in a different way, have interacted with different family members, or be able to provide details that no one else can. You probably won't get to them all before the urge to jump on the Internet finally gets the better of you, but try to talk to as many as you can.

Talking to your family members can mean anything from a formal recorded interview to a casual conversation over the dinner table, or even an occasional question asked by e-mail. The casual conversation approach works especially well, as it seems to put family members more at ease. The downside, however, is that you don't always get the chance to take notes right away, and have no recording to fall back on. A nice compromise is to set up a video camera on a tripod in the corner of the dining room or other room where the interviewee feels comfortable, and then start a casual conversation about family events and memories. Your subject will often forget the camera is running (or at least stop worrying about it). If you can get two or more family members together at once, the informal conversation and memory-sharing pretty much takes care of itself. Either way, ask a few questions to get the conversation started, but don't be afraid after that point to let your relative(s) wander from one memory to the next.

Storycorps (www.storycorps.com) brings trained facilitators and high-quality recording equipment to locations around the country to help record interviews between friends and family, in which one person interviews the other. The recorded interviews are added to the Story-Corps Archive, housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and participants receive a broadcast-quality copy of their interview on CD.

Decide Who to Interview First

Begin by talking to the oldest living family members, when possible, because they are the ones whose memories are most at risk of being lost forever and they usually know the most about the family. You'll often find them the easiest to talk to as well, because they have more free time and usually appreciate the fact that someone is interested in their stories. It also helps to think about what you're hoping to learn and who is most likely to have that information. If your goal is to learn your great-grandmother's maiden name, you might want to start with your grandmother, if she is still living, or one of her siblings. Or you may just want to start with the people who are most willing or interested in the information you are gathering. It's a lot easier to get information from someone who is excited about what you are doing.

Most families also have at least one person known to be the keeper of the family history — the one who has spent some time researching the family tree, who has the largest collection of family photos and memorabilia, or is just the “busybody” sort who knows everything about everyone. This is someone you're definitely going to want to talk to. He or she may not always be someone in your direct line, however, so it may take some detective work on your part. If your great-grandfather, for example, had several siblings, then descendants of any of those other children are just as likely as your grandfather to have family photos, letters, and other items that have been saved.

What questions should I ask my relatives?

Begin by using the family tree chart you've started to create a basic list of questions. Next, add additional questions based on major life events, such as going to school and getting married — focusing not just on facts, but also on how, why, where, and with what results. Open-ended questions that require more than just a “yes” or “no” answer help encourage personal commentary.

Prepare for a Successful Interview

There are many tutorials and guides online to help you prepare for and conduct a successful oral history interview, covering such matters as what to bring with you and which questions to ask for best results. More important than all these little details, however, is actually sitting down and talking to your relatives. To get you started, here are some basics to keep in mind:

  • Check your equipment in advance. Be sure you have paper and pencil and extra batteries, and that the equipment all works. If you can get into the room where you're going to conduct the interview, do a practice run to be sure the microphone will pick up both you and the interviewee.

  • Come prepared. Bring a list of topics you want to cover, family group sheets or pedigree charts to be verified or expanded, and some family photos and other props to help jog your relative's memory.

  • Don't interrupt. The best way to keep your interviewee involved is to listen to what she has to say. You can ask follow-up questions to get more details, but don't worry too much about your interview getting off track as long as your relative is still talking about the family. Sometimes those little “tangents” reveal the most interesting clues.

  • Be respectful, not pushy. If your relative appears reluctant to give details about a particular event or person, don't press. There may be a “secret” or a painful memory, and pushing too hard can mean an end to her willingness to talk to you. Save it for a future conversation, or as something to ask other relatives about.

  • Make note of any names, places, and events mentioned during the interview. After the interview, ask your relative to go through this list with you, to add full names with correct spellings.

  • Follow through. If you taped the interview, make a transcript. If you took written notes, make a photocopy. Send a copy to your interviewee along with a thank-you letter.

  • While you're busy digging for facts to fill in the blanks of your genealogy software or family tree chart, don't forget to ask for and record the stories as well. Every family has them. Some are well-rehearsed — like the stories Grandpa likes to tell just about every time the family gets together. Others may have never been told because no one ever thought to ask. Both are an important part of the family history and deserve to be written down.

    Don't Believe Every Story You Hear

    Almost all family stories have a kernel of truth, but sometimes that's about all that's true. You may hear stories of being related to a famous individual, such as Abraham Lincoln or Napoleon Bonaparte. You may be told that your great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess. Or you may encounter the common tradition that your family tree goes back to “three brothers” who came to America. It's possible, of course, that these stories are true. It's much more likely, however, that such stories are more myth than fact.

    There's a game you may have played as a child known as “Chinese whispers” or “Telephone.” A sentence or phrase is whispered into the ear of the first participant, who then whispers what he hears to the next person in line. By the time the sentence reaches the end of the line, it is often unrecognizable from the one uttered at the beginning. In the same way, family stories are often changed or embellished as they are passed down through successive generations. For this reason, all family stories and traditions should be verified through careful genealogy research before you accept them as fact. Don't laugh at the stories, however, no matter how ridiculous they may sound. Respect the feelings of those who believe them and wait to correct any misconceptions until you have evidence that disproves the family tradition.

    Even if you've been asking your family members questions for years, they will still manage to surprise you with new information. Don't expect to learn everything the first time you ask, and don't listen when a family member tells you they don't know anything. It may take time, patience, and creativity, but you can generally learn something useful from every living relative in your family tree.

    Family Interviews Aren't a One-Time Deal

    Look at every family gathering as a potential source for information. If you're getting together for a family reunion or the holidays, e-mail your family members in advance and ask them to bring their favorite family photographs or heirlooms to share. You can even scan the collection and create a CD for everyone to take home. If your relatives have e-mail, it offers a great medium for asking a quick question about something that comes up in your research. Alternatively, you may want to try an e-mail question of the week or month — sort of an ongoing family history conversation. You can also create a private family website that allows your relatives to post recipes, share stories and photos, and keep up-to-date on your research. Some family sites even offer private family chat rooms, blogs, and message boards, which can be a great way to collect and preserve your family's stories. See “Best Places to Put Your Family Tree Online” (http://genealogy.about.com/od/publishing/tp/web_sites.htm) for suggestions.

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