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Interviewing Tips for Family History

I suppose I am not telling you anything new, when I say you should start your research by asking living relatives about your family history. Many books begin with such advice. Perhaps the advice they leave out is to not stop asking questions.


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I suppose I am not telling you anything new, when I say that you should start your research by asking living relatives about your family history. It seems obvious, and many books I read begin with such advice. Perhaps what they leave out in their advice is to not stop asking questions about your family history.

After finding a name on an 1850 census with my third great-grandfather's family, I asked the question, "What do the Pancakes have to do with the Smiths?" It turned out to be the most important question I had asked my mother. She had never volunteered anything about the Pancakes before, but my question got an important answer. She said, "Well, your grandfather always said we were related to the Pancakes."

I can not begin to explain how vital that answer was, nor how it literally opened up an entire branch of my family tree, while verifying that I had the right Smith line.

No matter how good you are in writing down and asking all the right questions; no matter how patiently you sit there in front of your endearing grandmother or Great Aunt Lulu, looking expectantly; the fact of the matter is, people do not always fully answer your questions. Use a tape recorder if you wish, scribble on a note pad, or run a video camera if you want; but do not think that one interview, or that after exhausting your questions, that you're done with the step of securing family history from relatives. It's a process that continues, before, during, and some times to your surprise, after your family book is written.

Persistence Pays

In the study of communications this delay is called the communication lag or "comm-lag" for short. It is not the time in between your asking a question and the reply you hear. It is the time between your asking someone a question and the time the recipient of the question actually answers your question. The mental machinery of the young and old can spin, clank and whirl a long time before they process and vocalize the answer to your question.

You might ask something like, "So when did Grandpa William leave Indiana?"

Your Aunt Lulu may begin with, "Gee, that's a good question . . . He bought that old blue pick-up in fifty-four, and he had it when he came to the house in . . . ah, I think was sixty-four. That was when your Uncle Joe, God rest his soul, went into the army during that terrible war. . . ."

Well, she never answered your question. And she may never while you sit there falling asleep from hearing the fourteenth time how Uncle Joe got his Purple Heart. You might as well scribble some notes, like: "Grandpa William bought an old blue pick-up in 1954 and that Uncle Joe went into the service in 1964."

Just smile and let Aunt Lulu continue the discourse and, then, when she has to gather in some oxygen, quickly ask her again, "That's great, but when did Grandpa leave Indiana?"

She may suddenly have a surprised look on her face, as if she'd never heard you ask that question before and say, "That was thirty-six! Didn't you know that?"

Then, warmly acknowledge her for giving you the information and go on to your next question.

Being a bit tenacious and asking your question over and over again until you get an answer is important in any interview. Even if the answer is, "I don't really know." Always remember that "I don't know" is a legitimate answer! Don't hound the poor lady!

The need to tenacity is never more true, than when using an interposing device to communicate with such as a phone, the Internet or writing of letters. Do not be surprised that you may have to send more than one e-mail or letter asking the same question before you finally get an answer to the question asked. You may get a ton of stuff in the meanwhile, like Uncle Albert had twins or it took three weeks to drive a Model 'A' Ford from Indiana to Washington State in the 1930's. Eventually you may find they don't know or, perhaps, they will tell you where you can find someone whom might know. It's all good. Finding out about another source or being given wonderful stories or tidbits along the way will help you later when you sit down to write your family history.

Because it takes some people longer than others to answer, it is crucial that you keep the lines of communications wide open. Answer all your letters and e-mails while they are hot and send a reply as soon as you can. You know what it is like to be waiting for that answer back in the mail. Make sure you do not upset your sources by forgetting to answer their questions as well.

Keep Your Options Open

To begin contact, make a list of all your living relatives. Make a mailing list and, in writing, tell them of your genealogical project. Ask them questions and keep in touch, and you will get lots of material, leads to other sources and references, and many hours of wonderful conversation.

Cutting them off, not answering their letters and e-mails will bill you as the "stuffed shirt" whom always takes and never gives. Don't think you "know everything"be sure to ask for advice on where and how you might locate more information. People like to help, especially genealogists. I had one elderly lady that I had never met, call me long distance to apologize beforehand that she may not be able to send me her family history. What a sweetheart! She was under no obligation to give a complete stranger information about her family, and yet it was obviously very important to her.

Send lots of e-mails, letters, phone calls or visit family members, and take notes. Lots of notes. This is how you start getting the family history.

Don't stop with just asking for dates, locations, and names either. Too many genealogists narrow their field of interest and never request information other than what they feel is directly pertinent to their direct descendants and ancestors. This can be a big mistake.

I would say, that perhaps as much as 90% of the data I acquired about my family came from individuals who did not have the surname of Smith and were often two to three generations removed from the Smith line. You never know who has the family information, photographs, or Family Bible. You may be surprised to see how individuals not at all related to your line, may have a wealth of information about your family.

So start asking questions until you're blue in the face. Ask everyone and anyone, and keep asking until you are sure you have found out everything you can. And do it now! Even if you do nothing with the information for a while. Even if your job, and family commitments are extensive, do not wait to set some time aside to talk to your aunts, uncles, and other family members.

When my father passed away in June of 2000, he left only two living first cousins in the entire 7th generation of our direct family. Time continues to tick, people's memories may fade. What you ask today may be vital to what you will discover tomorrow. I was fortunate that my father and sister had a keen interest in the family history as far back as the 1960's. It gave me a foundation to start from. Start your information foundation today by asking questions.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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