Beginning Concepts: Interviewing Relatives, Do It Now

After you’ve collected everything you know, it is time to reach out to your living relatives. Every day that passes by, is one day closer to death, unfortunately. Not to be grim (though we did just pass Halloween), but this is a sincere fact of life. And I’m not necessarily talking about YOUR death; that’s another discussion about YOU getting YOUR genealogical records in order. I’m talking about our older relatives and even those our own age. The time is now to talk to them, to interview them regarding their memories of the family history. Each person will have their own side to every story, their own memories about family events, and so it is so important to ask as many relatives as possible about family events.

There are some great online resources to help you with questions that can prompt family members to talk.

Books:

  • Linda Spence, Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History
  • Kirk Polking, Writing Family Histories and Memoirs

Websites:

I have found that paper forms are very handy to use when interviewing relatives when you can sit down with them face-to-face. They can help prompt them to talk about things that they had forgotten. If they see a blank on your form and they know that information, they are often willing to share. Currently, I recommend phone calls or Zoom meetings for you family history interviews. And during this time when we are all so isolated, some of those older relatives would probably really appreciate the call.

It seems that sometimes cousins know more about my direct line than I do because they were more willing to gossip about something not affecting their nuclear family units. Ask cousins what they know about a particular family event and see what kinds of stories you hear.

My grandma on the right, her long-time best friend, Wilma on the left. During a visit where I interviewed them both.

If they are comfortable being recorded, do that so you don’t have to be a furious note-taker while they are talking. If you are using Zoom, that is quite easy. You can also set up your phone to record voices or go old-school and use a tape recorder if you still have one. Come prepared with charts and questions. Share with them pictures, documents, and information you’ve already collected. This often jogs their memory.

Here are some topics:

  • School days
  • Important life events
  • Residences
  • Migrations
  • Land ownership
  • Occupations
  • Best friends
  • Military service

Most of all, this is supposed to be fun and engaging. So, make some time to make some calls either by phone or zoom. As the holidays approach in this weird year, reach out and have some family history conversations with your family members.

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