When I started to research my family history, I dutifully interviewed my grandmother, asking her questions like when and where she was born, the names of her parents, when and where they were born, the names and birth dates of her siblings, the names of her grandparents and when and where they were born and died. Then, as all the genealogy how-to books advised, I verified everything she told me in one record or another.
I hated doing oral history interviews. My grandmother hated being interviewed.
It was a long, long time before I tried again. By then, Grandma was gone, so I interviewed her cousin Isabel. I followed the same procedure, asking about names, dates and places. Finally Isabel had enough of my pestering for facts: “Please don’t ask me any more questions,” she said. “I’ve told you everything I know.” She stopped answering my letters, and when I called she pretended I had the wrong number.
So much for quizzing relatives for genealogical data. Besides, why bother asking questions I could find the answers to in a record somewhere? What was the point?
Then I met a social historian who taught me a better way of doing oral history interviewing—the oral historian’s way. Instead of asking who, where and when, I should have been asking why, how and what. I learned to unlock my relatives’ memories and to tap the family history that’s not in the record books—people’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. Trust me, the census record enumerating Great-uncle Mortimer’s family will still be around long after we’re all dead and gone. But the sense of what life was like in the past, the memories that make a person unique, will go to the grave with that person—unless you ask the right questions.
- What were some of your grandfather’s positive qualities?
- What about negative qualities?
- How did your grandparents meet?
- What kind of work did your grandfather do?
- What’s your fondest memory of your grandfather?
- What do you think he would have wanted to be remembered for? Why?
- As you think of your grandfather, how do you remember him looking?
- How old was he then?
- What did you call him?
- What did his wife and friends call him?
- Tell me a story about your grandfather that shows what kind of a man he was.
Notice that none of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” These questions require the person to think about the answers and will give you information that’s more interesting than dry names and dates.