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interview your family
an untapped resource with surprising results

By Deborah K. Millemaci
(return to genealogy)

Interviewing relatives can prove rewarding and may provide you with information you may not find in paper records. Most elder family members enjoy telling stories about what it was like when they first came to America. How they lived, worked, raised their families, etc., are still vivid memories that can be recorded for future generations.

Be Prepared
Preparation is the key before your interview. You must consider what type of interview will best suit the family member being interviewed. Here are some things you should bring:

  • Tape recorder - this is by far the most popular as it is easy and you can obtain a lot of information on your tapes. Just make sure your tape recorder is in good working order, and you have fresh batteries and plenty of blank tapes.
  • Video camera - this is another good way to obtain information and capture the emotions of your relatives as they are recounting their experiences for you.
  • Note Pad- Taking notes is also good method, although it may be better to do this in conjunction with your tape recorder.

Where to Start
Who should you interview? What about starting with yourself! Are there questions you can readily answer? Once you have established that you have answered all you can, it is time to move on to your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles etc.

It is always advisable to ask your relative which type of interview they may prefer so they will feel comfortable throughout the session(s). Don't forget to document the date, time, and person being interviewed. Don't assume you will remember this information. Also, remember that all the information you are seeking cannot be done at one time. Space out your interviews and limit the length of time for these sessions as older people tend to tire easily.

What to Ask
Since you are seeking information, try to formulate questions that will entice your relatives to respond with more than just "yes" or "no" answers. The type of questions depend on the information you are seeking. Are you researching family customs and traditions? Are you looking for information on a specific family member? In preparing your questions, make them simple. Don't overwhelm someone with multiple questions within a question -- all this does is cause confusion. Also, give your relatives time to answer. You'd be surprised how one answer can lead to a story that will teach you something completely new about your roots! Here are some questions you might want to consider:

  • What are the names of your parents and where were they born?
  • What information can you tell me about the town you lived in? What was it like living there, etc.?
  • What were the reasons you came to America? Did you come here alone or with family? What port did you enter from?
  • What kinds of customs and traditions were celebrated by your elder relative? How have these customs changed over the years?
  • What other relatives (aunts, uncles, cousins) can tell you stories about other family members?
  • What memories do they have of your parents growing up?
  • Were there any specific medical conditions that are hereditary in your family?
  • Was it difficult to 'get used' to a new way of life in America, or did they revert back to some of the 'old ways'?
  • Were there special holidays that were celebrated by the family?
  • Did you stay in contact with relatives that stayed behind ?

The questions above are only a guide. There are hundreds of different variations you can use to suit your needs. If you aren't sure what types of questions to ask in your interview, there are also numerous websites that provide them for you. All you have to do is type "Interviewing Relatives" and you will receive hundreds of websites that will contain interviewing questions that you can use as a guide.

Other Tips
Make sure you bring photographs and other documents with you as they may stimulate memories or other pieces of data you can use for your research.

When is the best time to conduct an interview? Almost all family functions, such as reunions and holidays, are perfect occasions for interviews. You can either choose one specific family member or you may have other family members who would be more than willing to provide some of the information you are seeking. You might also wish to bring a camera with you which might be useful during your interview.

Don't be discouraged if you don't receive information you hoped for. Sometimes older relatives can be suspicious of your motives for obtaining information and not help you at all. Don't despair, you may find another relative willing to help you. Consideration of your family members is important when preparing for family interviews. Try to schedule these sessions at their convenience and before meeting with them, fully explain your reasons for interviewing them.

Make them comfortable about it and encourage them to participate. Interviewing family relatives can take you through the doors of the past while providing and preserving information for your family's future generations.

This article is the third part of a three part series.
Read Part One, or Part Two.
©Deborah K. Millemaci - 2002
No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.


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