Oral History: Beginner’s Guide to Interviewing Your Family

Family history research is one of the most fulfilling hobbies because it is a personal journey through the past. It's often difficult to become passionate about the history of strangers; but, when it comes to your relatives, interest often peaks quickly. Personally, I never enjoyed history until I was able to connect how my family was influenced by and directly impacted history through their life experiences.

In my work as a researcher, I often see people eager to jump online or travel to the nearest archives, only to end the day in frustration. The easiest and most enjoyable way to begin one's family history journey is to interview living family and community members.Why?Interviewing one's family members (particularly those who are the elders of the family) provides clues to ensure you are climbing the right family tree.Don't assume everyone in the household is a blood relative.In my own family history research, I stumbled because my paternal grandmother: Julia Jones Dumas lived in a blended family. I assumed that all of her siblings had the same parents because they shared the same surname. This was not the case. Though they shared the same father, they did not all share the same mother.The easiest way to solve this puzzle was by communicating with the elders in my family, with whom I could piece together full and half-siblings. I could have jumped to the idea that my grandmother's step mother was her biological mother. However, it would have been incorrect and it could have caused a lot of tangled branches in my tree.Historically, the idea of "family" was more complex than we might think. Many people assume that blended families are a new phenomenon. This is untrue. Instead of divorce, our ancestors often had to contend with the early death of a spouse due to illness or war. Many remarried, creating blended families. This was even the case in colonial America. Additionally, if children were orphaned, neighbors would often take in the children and raise them as their own.

Top 5 Tips to Documenting Your Family's Oral History

  1. Schedule a Time

Always be respectful of other people's time, especially if they are doing you a favor. If you want to get a lot of information from someone, it may take some time. Be patient. Ask if you can interview them and set a time in the future. Often, I have noticed that people do not think they know anything about their family history. Start with where they lived, who was in the neighborhood, what kind of school did they attend, etc. Soon, they will share with you more than you can ever imagine.

  1. Review the family papers

Do they have their parents' death certificates? Non-researchers are unaware that these documents hold precious clues regarding family history. Obituaries, newspaper articles, dates of birth, marriage, family bible, photographs, funeral programs and family cemeteries, are all important factors in jogging the memory of the person you are interviewing. They also validate the stories you are being told with a paper trail.

  1. Share Stories

Stories of relatives give more information regarding the humanity of your ancestors than any document. Ask about their personalities. I never met my great-grandfather but I know he was a quiet, caring, hardworking man from my oral history interviews. I also know that my grandmother, whom I never met, was a woman of faith who adored her family and diligently read her Bible. These stories give a glimpse into the character of the people on your pedigree.

  1. Have a list of questions

It is easy to think if you're talking to a family member that you can just wing it. Don't! Often we may forget to ask certain questions because we assume we already know the answer. Ask about religious/political affiliations, nation of origin stories, why did your family move/remain where they lived/worked? Was your family matriarchal/patriarchal? What foods did they cook? Did your grandparents have siblings? How many? What were their names?One mistake I see often is that new researchers only pursue their direct ancestors and forget that their relatives lived, worked and worshiped in communities.That is the secret to knowing if your John Smith is the right John Smith.Who were their siblings, cousins, neighbors and friends? Where did they go to school? For how long? What industries did the people work it? Were there differences in the work of men and women? What age did young people start working? What were the occupations? Take a moment to search for "family history interview questions" in your browser for additional ideas.

  1. Repeat more than once

Once my grandmother got into the groove of remembering, she would often wait for my next set of questions on our Sunday chat. Or she called when she remembered a fun fact! Our elders want to share their memories but do not believe they will land on welcomed ears.It is important to know that this step should be enjoyable. You will not be able to download all of your relatives thoughts in one interview. They are not a computer! Also, do not over-do the first session because you do not want to overwhelm your interviewee. However, this should be the first of many wonderful conversations in documenting your family history.Why?Oral history is important! Many people overlook oral history. Please pay attention to the stories being shared. Ask questions and document what you are being told. These oral exchanges may include information you won't get anywhere else.Remember to do your due diligence and to verify the information. Memories fade and names and places can get confusing over time.I love oral history; however, it has gotten a bad rap because it is thought to be inaccurate. While this is the case with any source, it should not be ignored. Lovingly interview your elders. If possible, record their voice.This may become a treasured keepsake for future generations.Happy Ancestor Hunting!

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Written by


December 12, 2017
Wesley is the founder of hello@traceyourpast.com.

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