Advice for Preparing and Collecting Interviews for Genealogy/ Family History
I read an article recently on history that I wanted to review for a larger audience. I thought that it was really important information to have available for someone searching for it. So here is a good summary.
The article that I am reviewing was written by Linda Shopes. One of the first things she discusses is the fact that the terms 'family history' and 'genealogy' are not always interchangeable even though they are used interchangeably in most societies. The term genealogy is defined as the 'reconstruction of a person's lineage through use of written records'. Family history, however, has a much more inclusive definition and can include genealogy- but also oral history, pictures, historical significance, etc... And there are many benefits to the use of oral history in the work of the 'family historian'. These can include, but are not limited to:
1. The discoveries in this work can enhance the historian's sense of identity and can help them gain perspective on their own life and give the historian's life more context and meaning.
2. The family members who participate in the interview process may find preparing for the interview and the interview themselves rewarding. Recalling life experiences and sharing them with others who show true interest can be not only rewarding, but give a sense of accomplishment and giving to the interviewee.
3. Gathering these records can be an impetus for developing and deepening family relationships for the historian as well as other family members... and the records themselves can help open relationships and appreciation for other family members that other members may know little about.
Another benefit that can be found by the general historical community is that if the family historian prepares these records and does the research to place the individuals in their historical contexts, not only are they more interesting, but they can provide information for the general historian about times and situations of which there may be very little or only misleading information available to study.
So it is important to carefully prepare for doing oral interviews. It is important to have the basic data for the family members that you are going to discuss and talk to. Then you should take that basic info and do some research on the historical and social times in the life of that person. Some places to begin for looking for family information are: the family bible, misc family papers such as tax forms, material objects, and also public documents such as -birth, marriage, census, wills, etc... One reason for doing the research ahead of time is to save time in the interview and spend the time on getting answers and recollections that you do not know or to get more information that you can only get in the interview process. By having some information you might be able to help stimulate recollections and its the next step to understanding individual lives in their relationships and social circumstances. It will also help make the historical setting and involvement more clear.
It is also very important to make sure you have a precise focus... and the focus that you choose can cover three specific areas. The first is the impact of major historical events and trends during the person's life. The second is technical developments and how they have changed the world around the person and that individual's life. The last is the various relationships of various aspects of social life- work, religion, community, family, class status, structure and dynamics of their life. This can also include family stories, traditions, customs, and beliefs.
You should also start with the family members that you feel most comfortable with and are willing to be interviewed... and as these interviews are successful, you are very likely to get more positive responses from more reticent family members- although older family members should be put at the top of the interview list for obvious reasons.
So when preparing for your interview, think about how to encourage extensive and thoughtful recall. Explore possible topics for the interviewee before the interview. You should encourage a mood of expansiveness and ask open ended questions. If necessary, you can ask follow up questions to bring the interviewee back to the discussed topic and always guide and encourage, but do not intrude and do not comment positively or negatively- try to be impartial. Each topic should be explored as completely as possible before moving on to another topic. You as the interviewer should be in a relaxed body posture, develop a good rapport with your subject, use nods and smiles and use clarifications and examples can be used after the question has been answered. Make sure that pauses are not interrupted by more questions; make sure the question is fully answered. Interviews should be in comfortable, informal settings with no background noise and the interviews should be slowly ended- not abruptly closes. A few closing questions with small talk for a few minutes and thanks is the recommended ending. And no interview should last more than a maximum of two hours- the interview will become more tiring and not productive.
You can also use a group to record oral history. A family group can be very enjoyable and valuable to the participants involved as well as the historian. It can provide more information as individual group members provoke responses and trigger memories in other members. A group interview can also highlight patterns of interaction among members and highlight the similarities and differences between the members.
In conclusion, Ms. Shopes had some words of caution. It is important to understand that some family members will be uncomfortable talking about personal things and will have little enthusiasm for your interview. Some will be unwilling to talk about personal things and will refuse outright. Others may have difficulty getting past the feelings of past embarrassment, pain such as deaths, etc... that they will have difficulty expressing or feel that they cannot do so. And some others will use this interview to try and sway the interviewer to 'their' side of a family quarrel or may only present the 'good' side of the information. The author reminds us - “Oral testimony, like any other historical source, needs to be evaluated both for its factual accuracy and for what it reveals about the attitudes and values of the interviewee.”
After the interview, it is important that the historian uses a good form of organization that allows for easy access of the information to others. Careful filing of pertinent information under the individual's name as well as good transcriptions are key. It is also an idea to make the transcripts available to other family members... and if possible to your local historical society or library for other researcher to use in their research efforts. The author does however advise that any family history that leaves the 'hands' of the family should be kept in a way that permission must be granted to use or view the information.
I enjoyed writing this summary and I hope it is helpful to someone searching for information about preparing family history. :)