1. Identify relatives to interview.
Can’t think of relatives to interview? Consider close family friends, a priest or rabbi, neighbors, coworkers and military buddies. Even a few quick questions can yield insights into a parent or grandparent’s personality.
2. Schedule an appointment.
You also could have another relative you both know make the first contact, and then follow up with a call and say, “I’m the person Jill called you about.” If you live in different time zones, make sure you’re clear on the interview time in both your and your source’s locations.
3. Prepare and practice your questions.
As a genealogy speaker, I practice and record myself giving presentations to work out the kinks. If you’re a rookie interviewer, do what lecturers do and conduct a test run. Invite a friend to help you do a practice interview. Not only will you learn what works well and what doesn’t, but you will also learn more about your buddy and ensure your recording devices work properly.
4. Gather your supplies.
As with any type of project, having the right tools makes the job easier. Here’s a list of equipment to consider:
- Microphone: Depending on the recording device you choose, you could consider also getting a lapel or extension microphone. Lapel and tabletop extension microphones may offer much clearer sound quality than the built-in microphones on a tablet, smartphone or video camera. If you use a standalone digital recorder, the built-in mic is often sufficient.
- Power cords and backup batteries: Remember to charge or put new batteries in all your devices before the interview begins, and bring the power cords with you in case your interview runs longer than expected or the batteries die. You also may want to pack an extension cord, since you never know where the nearest electrical outlet will be.
- Portable scanner: A portable scanner such as the Flip-Pal is a lifesaver when your relative starts unexpectedly pulling out old family photos and documents.
- Two bottles of water: Bring a bottle of water for each of you. As a professional speaker, I’ve learned that ice-cold water tightens the throat, so avoid overchilling it.
- Notebook and pen: You never know when your recording device may fail, so keep notes throughout the interview. Additionally, you’ll want to jot down notes on spellings, follow-up questions and other folks to interview.
- Prepared notes or family tree charts: In addition to your questions, bring a chronological outline of your interviewee’s life for reference. I also like to have a family tree chart and family group sheets so I can keep the family straight and let my source fill in the necessary blanks.
- Family memorabilia: Introducing memorabilia into the interview is a great way to jog memories or assist your source in expanding on them. You also might get some IDs for unfamiliar names and faces. Possible mementos to tuck in your bag include photographs, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, yearbooks and maps. If you’re audio recording, be sure to describe aloud the item you’re showing the interviewee.
5. Set up for the interview.
When you turn on the recorder, say your name, the date, location and who you are with. Then play it back and adjust the volume and microphone position if necessary.
6. Conduct the conversation.
- How did you feel when that happened?
- So what would that look like?
- Can you give me an example of how that played out?
- How surprised were you when that happened?
- What did others say about that?
- Then what happened?
Take breaks as needed during the interview. If a conversation is flowing well it can be tempting to forge ahead without a rest, but resist the temptation. Ask your source how he’s doing. He may be too shy to ask for a break, but then later become restless. Stay ahead of the game and budget downtime.
7. Wrap it up.
After the interview concludes, thank your relative again and consider leaving a small gift of family history. I like to give a hardcover photo book that focuses on stories in my family’s history. This is easy to create online with print-on-demand services such as Shutterfly and Snapfish (see our article on preserving newspaper clippings for more on these services). These books are not only a nice thank-you gift; they also help your relative visualize your commitment to family history and feel confident in his decision to share with you.
8. Follow up.
If you plan to transcribe all or parts of the conversation, it’s best to do so while it’s still fresh in your mind. Consider sharing select stories with other relatives (with your interviewee’s permission) so they’re sure to be passed on.
- prepared list of interview questions
- memorabilia and family photos
- family tree chart and family group sheets
- digital voice recorder, smartphone with recording app or video recorder
- telephone handset recorder (for phone interviews)
- extension or lapel microphone (optional)
- backup batteries
- power cords
- extension cord
- portable scanner (optional)
- bottled water
Getting the Exclusive
If you’re having a difficult time developing questions to uncover family history information, consider starting with these questions, arranged by topic:
- Who were you closest to in your family?
- What values and beliefs did your parents teach you?
- How did your parents discipline you?
- Who were your heroes as a child? Why?
- If you could relive one day from your childhood, what day would that be?
- Who was your favorite teacher?
- What was your favorite subject?
- What was your least favorite subject?
- What got you in trouble most often?
- How did you meet your spouse?
- What first caught your eye about your spouse?
- When did you know your spouse was the one for you?
- What was your wedding and reception like?
- Were there any surprises?
- What was your first job?
- How did you get into your career?
- What was your favorite job?
- What was your least favorite job?
- Tell me a funny story about your family.
- What recipes did your mom make that you still make today?
- Who was the family storyteller when you were growing up?
- What types of family reunions or special family outings did you attend?
- What traditions did your family have for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or holidays?
- Where were you when this happened?
- How did it affect your life?
- How did you feel about it?
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