Archive for the ‘Interviewing Relatives’ Category

Christmas VillageAre you looking forward to getting together with your family this year or are your feelings mixed?  Do people tend to rehash the same old disputes, comparisons, unsolicited advice, etc.?  Why not work at mixing things up? Get people sharing their family stories.  How?

Think a bit about the people who are coming. Getting family members curious about things they’ve never thought about before could be a good start. Think about the family as a whole. Where does each guest fit into the family?  Get people thinking about this family of theirs.  How far back do their memories go? Whose memories reach back the furthest? What are they curious about?  Who shares common interests?  Does one generation know information or skills they could share with a different generation? (Not just older to younger, but younger to older as well.) Do you have old family friends coming?  They probably share a few memories with members of your family that you might not know.

The Basics

Before people get together, do you have addresses, email addresses, and/or telephone numbers for all the family members at the gathering?  Collect them when people get together.  It’s also a good time to ask family members how to get in touch with other family members you’ve “always meant to contact.”

In the course of the day, you might want to ask if anyone at the gathering has done anything with the family’s history or know anyone in the family who does or did. You might be surprised at the answers you get.


I don’t think anything gets people talking faster than looking at old photographs. Do you have old family photos? Do you have any family stories about the people in them?  You could get the ball rolling by bringing some and recounting a few stories.  Hear what other people have to say. Write down their stories.  Or you could have paper pads available for people to write the stories, information or photo identifications themselves.  They should add their names so you know where the information came from. Go through after everyone has gone and just date the notes with the current date.  You know the circumstances now, but will you know where these notes came from and when ten or fifteen years from now.

You could ask people who are the oldest relative they have a photograph of. Or what is the subject of the oldest photograph they own.  Maybe they would be willing to share a copy of it.

If you are having the gathering in your own home, you might set up a collection of photographs, even if it’s just a three ring notebook with photos in acid free plastic sleeves. (You want both to protect the photos and keep them from getting mixed up.) You could set up one with older family photos.  You could set up another with people or places that need identification.  You could set up one with pictures of holidays past. If other people are bringing photos, keep them separate and protected at all times so they can all go back to their rightful owners in the same condition that they came in.  If you have a flatbed scanner set up that you use, you could ask the owner of a photograph if they would be willing to let you scan it (and return it) before they leave.

If you are in another relative’s home, look around for family photographs or other memorabilia.  Ask questions about them. You may not know some of the people in the photo.  You may know the people but not where it was taken or the circumstances.  There is always a question you can think of to get a story or at least more information.

I’ve seen suggestions about setting up a slide show of family photos on a computer or other device.  I always like the idea of flipping through the real deal.  You can go at your own pace or flip back when one photo reminds you of a story connected to another.  Though getting younger people to help you set up something technical that you can use for family to check later would get them involved.  Kids and teens are rarely asked for advice and they know things we don’t.  Helping us might get them curious about what we are doing and why we want to collect these things called stories.

Family Group Sheets and Pedigree Charts

If you want a quick visual about where people fit in the family, think family group sheets and pedegree (ancestor) charts. If you have already filled out family group sheets and pedigree charts, it might be fun to have them handy to go with the photos.  If you haven’t started yet, you might want to bring blank ones to have people fill out for them and their kids (or their parents). This is where the family group sheets really come in handy.

Talking with Relatives

270. Do not assume anything.  Always ask, especially if you are asking about something specific. Some people might really enjoy recounting memories or stories they know about growing up during or participating in historical events like the Depression, World War II, the sixties, Vietnam… For others it might bring up very difficult or traumatic events they do not want to discuss. Respect their wishes. Also don’t assume if an older relative has a problem with short term memory, that they can’t participate.  Their long term memory might be just fine.

 Two questions you might want to ask could be “Who is the oldest family member you remember?” “What do you remember about them?”

Do you know anyone interested in cooking that might be willing to help those involved with the preparation?  If the cooks don’t want someone “mucking about” with their recipes, would they be willing to share the recipes and/or talk about the memories that go with them while they are cooking? Where did they get the recipe? If not from a family member, maybe from an old cookbook.  Do they still have it? Would they be willing to have their picture taken while cooking? (Digital camera anyone?)

If they are bringing food and you know they made it and didn’t buy it, you could ask them if it’s a family recipe. If it’s something that they discovered, you have a new family story in the making.  Do they have other family recipes that they’ve made or stories about cooking, especially around the holidays?  And sometimes you can get some really good stories about buying a staple for the holiday feast.

Do not make the mistake of only asking the older women about cooking and the men about World War II. Men cook too and women who lived through it have home front memories.  You may also be surprised to find that staid Aunt Sadie was in the military during wartime and stationed overseas.  Remember what I said about not assuming anything.

Be prepared to the inevitable dispute or two or three.  Take down the different forms of a story or identification as well as the names of those contributing each.  It’s good to have them all and some of the details may be able to be researched at a later date.

Another idea I had is to ask everyone to help you create a timeline of events that they remember and roughly when it occurred.  You might be surprised at how far back it goes.

Afterwards: Ideas to Consider

Set up a place online for family access to photographs or stories. Blogs, Facebook (with security filters), Flickr (especially albums), Pinterest, Instagram.  Always check a site’s security filters before you set one up or use one set up by another family member.

You could continue the discussion through emails, perhaps by mailing out a question to everyone who’s interested.  One question at a time should be sufficient.  Just make sure you have a file for them on your computer and you also print out a copy. If some people are really getting into this, they could adopt and research a husband and wife among your known ancestors.

If people give you feedback, do the same for them.  And always thank them, with a handwritten thank you note if possible.  Even the younger generations are impressed with that.  They may never have received one before.

You are building your family story – story by story.  In the short run, you may end up with an interesting, enjoyable family holiday. In the long run you may be building stronger bonds between family members and between generations that could last well into future generations.  It takes work to have fun. And think of the rewards.

4 December  2015/vea
Newton Free Library
Newton, Mass
Library website:  http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net
Genealogy blog:  https://thecuriousgenealogist.wordpress.com
Genealogy LibGuide:  http://guides.newtonfreelibrary.net/genealogy

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DSC03523 Files, Notes, Folders, and Books

Collecting Family History: Files, Folders, Notes, and Books

After you have decided where you are going to put your information, you start collecting the material you are going to put into your files.   The basics of genealogy are who, where, and when for births, marriages, and as you go back in time, deaths. But that’s only the skeleton of your family. You can include other information as well, such as family stories. You begin by writing down what you know about yourself and then your siblings.  Next you go back to your parents and their siblings, then to your grandparents,  as far back as you can remember.  If you remember it, write it down.  There are three forms that might help you figure out what you know and what you don’t.  These are provided with links so you can print out what your need.  There are forms for individuals. for family groups, and for direct line ancestors.  Take a look.  You should find them useful.

Have you discovered that you have a number of gaps?  Dates and places you don’t know?  Names that you can’t remember?  Your next step is to collect information from your relatives.  Ask questions of your parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and their siblings if they are still alive.  If you are older, you can talk to cousins, nieces, and nephews.  Some may be younger, but they may still have family stories you never heard or photographs you have never seen.  Be prepared for all sorts of responses. You may encounter relatives who think you are wasting your time.  Others will be curious, though maybe a little skeptical.  And you may discover that there are others in your family with a genuine curiosity about their family history.  Some may have collected family stories and/or family photographs.  You may even find someone who is working on putting together a family tree or has in the past.

It is a good idea to take notes either during or as soon after talking to a relative as possible.  Always include your name, the name of the person you talked to, how you are related, the date and the place you talked.  Someday someone may pick up your research and they will need this information.  And twenty or thirty years down the line, your memory may need a gentle nudge as well.

Sometimes you may want to actually sit down and interview a relative.  You can take notes, but see if they are willing to be taped.  In future years it will be a gift to hear their voice.  Be prepared for “but I don’t have anything interesting to say.  I don’t remember all that much.  I haven’t done anything very interesting.”  Trust me.  In 99% of the cases they do, they will, and they have.  But what do you ask them?  How do you draw them out?  This does not come naturally to most people.  You might want to take a look at some of the books or websites I’ve listed below.  You can usually find them at your local library or through your library’s  Interlibrary Loan (ILL) service.  Even if you want to buy it, it’s a good idea to take a look at a book first.  Some books will work for you and others won’t. You may not save money.  But you’ll have a better working library.


Hart, Cynthia.  The Oral History Workshop: Collect and Celebrate the Life Stories of Your Family and FriendsNew York: Workman, 2009.  907.2 H25O   This work covers all the bases.  It helps you prepare for an oral interview, and makes suggestions about the things you do once the interview is over, including transcribing and editing it. The center, Chapter 3, is comprised of all sorts of questions you could ask.  (It helps to have those prepared in advance, in case you need all of them. A good interview is knowing when to just let your interviewee tell stories and when you need to guide the interview with questions.

Greene, Bob.  To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to ComeNew York: Doubleday, 1993.  929.1 G83T   Need more questions? That is what this book is —  a list of questions sorted by category.

Ralph, LeAnn R. Preserve Your Family History: A Step-by-Step Guide for Interviewing Family Members and Writing Oral Histories.  Colfax, WI: LeAnn Ralph, 2007.  929.1 R13P

Catching Stories: A Practical Guide to Oral Historyby Donna M. DeBlasio et al.  Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 2009.  907.2 C28D


Creating Oral Histories from FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Creating_Oral_Histories

Family History Sample Outline and Questions from UCLA’s Center for Oral History Research  http://oralhistory.library.ucla.edu/familyHistory.html

Oral History Association  http://www.oralhistory.org Make sure you check out the section list at the top under the logo, especially the drop down menu under Resources.

Oral Interviews from The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress  http://www.loc.gov/folklife/familyfolklife/oralhistory.html

Oral History Primer from the University Library at the University of California, Santa Cruz  http://library.ucsc.edu/reg-hist/oral-history-primer

vea/4 April 2014
Newton Free Library
Newton, Mass
Library website:  http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net
Genealogy blog:  https://thecuriousgenealogist.wordpress.com
Genealogy LibGuide:  http://guides.newtonfreelibrary.net/genealogy

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