|Introduction to Genealogy|
Now that you have recorded what you know and scoured the records in your home and that of your relatives for clues, it is time to tackle your family members. All you will need for this project are a notebook and a pencil (or a tape recorder/video camera), an inquiring mind and a sense of adventure. Collecting oral histories is a critical first phase in genealogical research. I don't care what your excuse is (shy, live too far away, etc.) - DO NOT put this step of your research off until it is too late. No records or documents or even photos will ever be able to tell you as much about your family as your living relatives. The stories which they have to share are priceless.
One: Decide Where to Start
In many families there is a person who is generally known to be the family historian - the one person who everyone believes has the most information about the family tree. Ask your relatives who they think would know the most about your family and, if the same person's name keeps coming up, then that is where you start your search. Other good people to start with include your mother and father and grandparents. One more important thing to keep in mind as you are making your list of people to talk to is whether there is someone in the family who is really getting on in years. While it is sad to think about, they won't be around forever. Additionally, they may become mentally, verbally, physically or visually impaired, affecting their speech, their ability to tolerate a long interview or their ability to remember people, places and events.
Two: Make a Game Plan
While it may seem silly to create a plan for talking to your own family members, it is something which will greatly improve your chances for success. Take the time to make an appointment with your family member, prepare for the interview and decide on a list of questions, ranked in order of importance. Be prepared for your visit with a notebook, several sharpened pencils and a tape recorder (including extra tapes and batteries) if you plan to use one. Do not use a tape recorder if this makes your relative uncomfortable. You should also bring your pedigree chart (those gaps of missing information may spark memories), family photos and other information which you have collected about the family. You can also collect oral histories from distant relatives via letter, phone or even email!
Step Three: Tips for a Successful Interview
- If you have the opportunity to meet face to face with your family member,
then begin by reading
to Interview a Relative for step-by-step instructions on how to set up
and conduct a successful family history interview.
- If your family member lives far away then consider writing them a letter.
Use your letter to develop a rapport with this relative by telling them
about yourself, your family and why you are so interested in the family
history. Then follow-up with a list of open-ended questions. You will find
this usually results in a much better response than a letter saying
"tell me everything about the family" or a list of fill-in-the
blank with names and dates questions. You will also increase your
chances of a reply if you include a self-addressed, stamped return envelope.
- Phone calls can be tough, but can also make it easier to collect
information over an extended period of time. Especially when you are
interviewing relatives you hardly know, you may find it difficult to get
them to open up. This is entirely understandable when you consider that they
don't know you and may not trust your motivations. If you are interviewing
relatives by phone then consider doing it in a series of calls rather than
all in one sitting.
- Email is a wonderful invention which can be successfully used to collect oral histories, but you will also often find that is is something which many of your relatives, especially the older ones, don't trust or don't have access to. If you have a family member who loves email, then by all means use it, but don't expect to gather much useful information that way from someone who seems reluctant about the whole process.
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