Helpful hint #4: Interviewing Relatives–Before It’s Too Late

Saturday at a monthly genealogy meeting one of the woman at my table was telling us about how when she was growing up, at family gatherings, the men would go off and do their thing, the children would go play, and the older woman would gather around a table and talk about family and relatives–often those who passed away. At the time, she thought, “Who would want to talk about dead relatives.”

Now that this woman is interested in her family history, and finds herself sitting at the table with the “older” women, she realizes it’s with her cousins. The older generation, who would be able to tell her about her grandparents’ and great grandparents’ and remember stories about them, have all passed away.

Don’t let this happen to you. Below are some helpful suggestions for interviewing relatives:

1) Make sure they feel at ease. This often means interviewing them in their own home so they are sitting in their favorite chair.  Take time to get to get to know the person first if it’s not a relative you know well before you start asking them questions about the family.

2) Ask specific questions that are not too general that they could just answer yes or no to. Do not ask leading questions (i.e. Aunt Ruth had seven sisters, right?). The person you are interviewing may remember something entirely different.

3) Use props if you have them. Having a relative look at a passport, obit, photography, family bible, etc. could bring a lot of memories back to her/him.

4) Don’t believe everything you hear. No one is perfect. If the relative is much older they may mix up names of people or names of cities they lived, etc. Always verify the information you receive after you get back home.

5) If a relative is talking about one specific family and knows a lot about them, but claims not to know anything about one family member, do not force the issue. Perhaps that family member was the black sheep of the family, or moved away at a young age and was never heard from again.  There are other ways to find information on that one family member.

6) Take notes. You can also audio or video tape the interview of the interviewee feels comfortable with it. Write it down even if it doesn’t seem important or you think the person is mistaken. You never know what information will become important in the future.

7) Before leaving try to secure names of other relatives who may know about different relatives or have important family heirlooms they can show you and tell you about.


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