Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Interviewing Family Members in the Field

How many times have you heard somebody [or even yourself] say, "I wish I had asked [insert name of now-deceased family member here] about this!" That's the family historian's lament. It's also sometimes the motivation to seek out far-flung family members to get their stories.

"Getting their stories" is the essential nature of what needs to be done. On the other hand, accuracy is just as important a value as "getting the story." What's the best way to accomplish both goals?

Uncle Fred is likely to be put off if you bring a court reporter or a bank of microphones connected to a large tape recorder and start by saying, "State your name for the record, please." This approach will guarantee in most cases that you won't get the story!

On the other hand, you may not get the story seated in Uncle Fred's favorite dark bar, tossing back a few, and trying to write facts down on a cocktail napkin.

I think the "right" approach varies with the family member, although there are some basics that I like to use in every case.

First, I like to conduct the "interview" in a place comfortable for the family member, but where photos or documents may be easily accessible. That rules out the dark tavern! The family member's home at a quiet and convenient time often works best.
Craig interviews his cousin Sylvia Jones (not pictured) in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 29, 2007. At left is Craig's aunt, Delorise Gines, in whose kitchen they are seated. [Photo copyright Sherise Diamond. Used with permission].

Let your relative know in advance what questions you're interested in, so they might think about the subjects and perhaps find documents and photographs that are related.

Ask your questions in a friendly, conversational manner. How do you record the answers, especially if some answers are long narratives? A lot of people are uncomfortable in the presence of a recording device and others get distracted by a listener who's writing.

Assess in advance how your relative feels about recording devices. Sometimes this can be done simply by asking the relative; other times you may have to ask someone else or come to a conclusion based on what you know about the person.

I often take my laptop with me and before I get down to the actual "interview", I show my relative some of the work that I've previously done. Sometimes I'll show them a color chart of their ancestry as far as I know it, or sometimes I'll show them a photograph of an ancestor. These techniques are friendly ways to get folks talking. Since they've seen me with the laptop, they're not surprised when I type notes occasionally while they're talking.

Many of the best "interviews" take place in very informal circumstances. In Kansas City, for example, I went to a family birthday party at a well-known seafood restaurant. I sat next to a family member with whom I had not spent much time on this trip. He was full of stories that I had not heard. Most of these were a little short on specific dates, but there was enough "meat" to follow up on the specifics later on.

Even an interview that commences informally can transition to a more formal interview at the right time. For example, while looking at a photograph that the family member has produced, the interviewer will want to record certain basic information--now may be the time to get out the digital voice recorder.

I also take my camera and portable scanner with me.

The key issue is to make the family member feel comfortable, respected, and trusting of the interviewer. This means that the family member must perceive that the interviewer is seriously interested and will not belittle or denigrate the family member.

What techniques do you use to "get the story" from family members?

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