Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Interviewing your Family

As I put together notes for my next blog on The Other Half of My Tree - stories of my female ancestors I found I needed to find out a little more about my maternal grandmother. "I know what I'll do, I thought, I will give my mum a call.  She should be able to help me with this."

Forgetting that my mother, who is now 80, may not have a clear memory of her childhood years, I rattled a number of my questions over the phone to her.  "Oh Di,  I can't remember was her response".  I really had approached this the wrong way. " Don't worry Mum,  think about it a bit and I will talk to when I next visit".

I realised that I needed to be more considerate of her age and plan the "interview" more carefully if I was  to discover more about my mother's childhood.  Going back to basics, I started to develop an "Interview Plan" or some points that would help when interviewing family about their past.

These are the set of Points I thought I should consider

1. Notification  - Make sure you notify the person you want to interview of your intentions.  Fit in with their availability.  Either call or write a letter asking if they would prefer to meet, talk on the phone or correspond by mail.

2.  Background - Provide the relative that you want to interview with some details of your research so far.

3.  Be Considerate and Patient - Remember that the relative you wish to interview may not share your enthusiasm for researching the family tree.  Take time to develop a relationship of trust and if the relative is not comfortable with the interview, consider using a gatekeeper, e.g. a younger trusted member of the family or friend who will make them feel more at ease.

4. Be Prepared - Before the interview, ascertain the important pieces of information you would like to find out.  A good idea, if you have a long list of questions, would be to focus on 2-3 questions at a time and pace the interview over 2-3 sessions.

5.  Photos, Newspaper cuttings - take a collection of photos, newspaper cuttings, old cards etc with you to the interview, these will help to get the conversation flowing and also help trigger family memories.

6. Record Conversation - if the family member is happy for you to record the conversation, then you can  give full attention to your relative rather than being distracted by taking notes.

7.  Listen - take the time to listen to your relative, don't rush them or contradict what they have to say.  Allow them the freedom to explore their memories.  Don't worry if they get sidetracked from the information you are particularly interested in.  These wanderings from the topic may provide you with some interesting and vital information that you didn't even dream of discovering.

8. Be Sensitive - remember that these stories are personal and sometimes close to home, so don't pressure your relative to disclose stories that they are not comfortable talking about.

9. Group Interviews - an alternative method of interviewing could be gathering 2-3 relatives together for the one interview.  By sharing stories between them, they could spark memories and a more lively discussion on the family history.

10. Notes and a Thank You Note - make a copy of your notes/recording and show or send these to the person you have interviewed  with a thank you note.  Not only does this confirm your respect and thanks to the relative you have interviewed, it allows them to review what they have said.  These notes will give them the option to correct or make adjustments to what they have said and more importantly, may trigger more memories about your family.

With these points in mind, I pulled together some photos and newspaper cuttings (that I had found in TROVE).  Then I called my mother and eased slowly into the conversation about family, suggesting that she put some of her memories on paper to show me when I visited on the following weekend.  When I visited her, she had prepared a short story (about two pages) on what she could remember about her mother, then we sat and went through all the photos and I asked her strategic questions about friends, family outings, occupations etc.  This approach was far more successful than my first off-the-cuff telephone call.

I would be most interested to hear other tips from other family researchers on how they interview their family members.  

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