Making time to talk

Building_exterior_night 076Genealogy, like the study of history in general, aims not only to identify the names of a particular individual’s ancestors, but also to reconstruct the details of that ancestor’s life. Driven by natural curiosity and a desire to connect with those of the past, genealogists and family history researchers strive—as best as they can—to understand who a person was and what he or she did. To accomplish this, a number of sources are typically consulted, including obituaries, biographical reviews, town histories, family letters, and (un)published genealogies. Another important method for obtaining information on the lives of our ancestors—and perhaps the most enjoyable one—is interviewing or asking family members about their family history.

Interviewing your parents, uncles, aunts, or grandparents will likely not shed light upon the lives of very distant relatives, but it will provide you with valuable insights about the lives and personalities of your more recent relatives—insights that cannot always be obtained from the written record. Interviewing family members will also provide future generations with valuable family history information. Having recently interviewed one of my own family members I offer the following suggestions when conducting family interviews.

First off, if you plan on asking your relative(s) a significant number of questions about their family history, try not to engage them spontaneously. If possible, try to let your relative(s) know that you are interested in asking them some questions regarding family history, and schedule a separate time to talk. If you are able to meet with them in person, ask if they have any family photos or documents they can bring along to the interview. This planning will allow for a more fruitful and enjoyable interview experience.

Once you have scheduled a time to talk, come to the interview prepared. Write out a list of questions you would like to ask in order of priority. Don’t wait until the interview to come up with questions. Writing out a list of questions ahead of time will ensure that you address all of the questions you want to ask.

I recommend beginning with questions that establish basic genealogical facts. If you are interviewing a relative whose life you know very little about, begin by directing the questions toward the interviewee:

  • When were you born?
  • Where were you born?
  • Where did you live?
  • Who did you marry?

You can then transition to questions that aim at identifying the interviewees’ ancestors:

  • Who were your parents?
  • When were they born?
  • Where did they live?
  • When did they marry?
  • Who were your grandparents?, etc.

Afterwards, you might continue by raising questions that go beyond the simple genealogical facts:

  • Where did you go to school?
  • Where did you work?
  • What are your favorite pastimes?
  • What were your parents like?
  • Did your parents ever share information with you about their family history?

This is your chance to be creative about the questions you ask. This is also your opportunity to ask questions that you can’t ask your distant relatives! Allow for some flexibility here as well, as your family member may be willing to share stories and other information with you. Make sure you note these stories. Even if your family member shares a story with you or an insight about your ancestry that might not seem entirely correct, still make note of it. These stories are still an important part of your family history/family record, and represent how your family member understands their ancestry.

Your work is not over once the interview is complete. If you took notes during the interview, I recommend rewriting or typing up the notes. When rewriting my interview notes I prefer to create a narrative report, recounting the information obtained during the interview in order of its occurrence. During an interview a family member may explain an event out of order or make a point that they intended to raise earlier when responding to a particular question. Rewriting my notes in a narrative-style format allows me to present the information provided by the family member in a chronological format that is more readable.

Moreover, try to rewrite your notes as soon as you can after the interview. Doing so will allow you to note any details or particulars that you remember from the interview, but did not have the chance to write down while the interview was occurring.

If you decide to record the interview using audio or video devices, I also recommend writing or typing up the actual sequence of the interview (just in case anything ever happens to the recorded copy). Rewriting your notes may also bring to your attention additional questions that can be raised at a future time.

When rewriting your notes, remember that you are creating a document that future family members may look at. Make sure you note the date of the interview, who you interviewed, and your relation to the interviewee. Also, make sure you present your information in a format that is logical and readable. Be clear to distinguish in your notes when you are asking a question and when your family member is providing a response. Use quotation marks to distinguish the actual language used by your family member and your summary of your family member’s responses. I also recommend recording any information from the interview that might be helpful to your family history research in separate research notes, not in the actual interview record.

Lastly, once you have rewritten your notes, I suggest giving a copy of your notes to the person you interviewed not only for them to keep, but also for them to look over. After looking at your notes, your family member may want to add to a particular response or perhaps correct a point that may not have been communicated or recorded correctly. This collaboration between interviewer and interviewee, I believe, is important for constructing an accurate family record.

The above points are only intended as suggestions when interviewing family members. These suggestions are based on my own experience, and may not work for everyone. Moreover, interviews may drift in any number of directions, and a family member’s response to a particular question may inspire additional questions you did not anticipate asking. However, coming to an interview prepared and organizing your notes after the interview, I believe, are essential.

I encourage you, if you haven’t already done so, to make time to talk with your relatives about your family history. The holiday season always reminds me how important it is to talk with our family members and to share stories, memories, and family traditions. You never know, an interview with a family member may help to point your research in an entirely new direction! Happy holidays, and happy interviewing!

About Dan Sousa

Dan Sousa currently serves as the Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Intern at Historic Deerfield, Inc.—a museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts—where he is involved in several research, exhibition, and publication projects. His research interests include early American history and material culture, Massachusetts history and genealogy, Boston history and genealogy, and the history of American Catholicism. He holds a B.A. in history from Providence College and an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

4 thoughts on “Making time to talk

  1. I’m glad to see this part of family history research put into print!
    Many joyful encounters, and diversion to other historical areas has resulted from almost every interview I’ve been involved with — either within my own family, or as a volunteer with our local Historical Society’s Oral Interview program.

  2. When interviewing a older relative I learned the occupation of my great grandfather. This was a great help in tracking him as his name was James Ryan and there were many of the same name in Onondaga Co., NY. My James Ryan was a tailor and most of the others were laborers. His daughter was Margaret and many of the others had daughters named Margaret. But because I knew his occupation I was able to connect to the right person.

  3. For some reason, my family won’t sit still for “interviews.” I have to catch the information on the fly, even from those who are interested in family history. My brother, also a family historian, seems to be the only exception. Probably that’s because since his retirement, he’s doing genealogy himself. He used to be unwilling, for instance, to discuss his first marriage. Recently, however, after I found on his Ancestry tree a documented third husband for her, and asked him about it, we had a long phone conversation about it. Now he’s willing to talk. So some people do change their willingness to talk over time.

    At one point, he tried to interview our mother, using a small tape recorder, as she is full of interesting stories. She totally clammed up, and got quite upset with him for trying to pin her down. I’ve never been able to interview her either. But for years, we’ve gotten together at least weekly. Sometimes new stories pop out of her, and I try to gently lead her into the details before “It was too long ago, I don’t remember” puts a stop to it. Then I go home and write it all down, even the contradictory material. Her memories are her memories. I even have the “name change at Ellis Island” story for her grandfather who arrived in, we think, 1868, probably in Boston, not New York at all–his siblings came through Boston. Can’t find any records at all for his immigration, except an obit from 1923 saying he went to MN in 1868.

  4. Dan, are you a Sousa descendant from Provincetown on Cape Cod? I was struck by the numbers of that name when wandering through the graveyard. I was looking for OLD graves and had no luck there… Probably covered over with macadam…


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