Interviewing your relatives is by far the most effective way of gathering knowledge quickly as you start to build your family tree. You can often discover tons of information going back several generations with just a quick chat. However, as with all research, there are ways and means of going about this in order to get the most out of it.
Talk to your elderly relatives
The key point here is ask sooner rather than later. Many of us don’t ask the questions we wished we had while we had the opportunity, particularly because people often don’t get interested in their family tree until they get older. So much information dies with each generation, make the most of the relatives you have right now! The information they provide will likely give direction and colour to your research. If you don’t have anyone older to ask: siblings and cousins may know some details which haven’t yet been passed on to you.
Prepare in advance
It is worth having an idea of the questions you want to ask your relatives beforehand. You might feel a little nervous about interviewing your relatives (and they might too) so having a list of questions is a useful fallback. But don’t stick to them like a script. You will often get more out of the conversation if you allow it to flow naturally. You can always ask to arrange another visit if you don’t cover all the ground you’d hoped. It’s also a good idea to record the conversation so you are not distracted by having to note take.
Ask the right questions in the right way
Your relatives are likely to be most forthcoming if they feel relaxed, so keep things informal and jolly! Bear in mind that they may be able to supply personal anecdotes and colour that the records will not provide so try to keep your questions as open ended as possible to avoid yes/no answers, e.g. “I’m really interested in Grandma Moe. What do you remember about her?” Help them contextualise memories and dates with references such as, “Was she born before the war?” Sharing information and photos you already have often helps to grease the wheels and don’t forget to ask them about their own lives. Everyone (secretly) likes to talk about themselves and their experiences will be fascinating for future generations.
Overcome reluctance to provide information
Some relatives will be more helpful than others and you will probably know instinctively the best places to start, but even the most habitually tight-lipped may have interesting things to tell. Often talking about your shared family history can be a really good way of opening up and connecting with your older relatives, in particular. Be sensitive to painful memories and reluctance to talk about slightly taboo subjects such as illegitimacy. You may want to offer reassurance as to why you want to find out your family history and how you will handle the information provided. Again, sharing photos and records can help move conversation along.
Root out the family records
During your chat, it might be worth trying to find out if your relative has any family records and documents they wouldn’t mind sharing with you. If they don’t have them, you might discover who has them, at least. The same is true of photographs, which may have been passed down a different family line. You might ask to borrow photos for copying. Make sure you ask your relatives the ‘who’, ‘where’,’what’ of each photograph and treat them with the care they deserve.
It is good practice to write up notes immediately after every interview. You just won’t remember all the details in a year’s time! If you don’t feel inclined to type up the conversation verbatim, particularly if you have recorded it, write up the key points and make sure your recording is clearly labelled and stored out of harm’s way. Unwittingly, not all the information you are given may be correct. Family stories can get embellished, and memories fade over time, so it’s really important to check the accuracy of your information against other sources before you transpose them onto your family tree. Nevertheless, you now no doubt have a great deal more information on which to focus your research. It’s good to share with your relatives any new information or memorabilia you find in the course of your research – they can often elicit further reminiscences.
And make sure you say thanks (a thank you card goes a long way!), so they feel disposed to help you further!
Here’s a useful list of questions that may help you prepare: 50 Questions for Family History Interviews.
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