Table of Contents

The Family History Interview

By David Hoffman, JGSLA

All Rights Reserved © 2003

 

 

The following suggestions for a family history interview are fairly comprehensive, and you will only be able to obtain some of the suggested information. The use of some questions depends on how close you are to the relative or other person you are interviewing or the stage of your new relationship. It is sometimes easier to elicit more personal information from a complete stranger than from a close relative who is concerned about your impression. Use your own judgement, but don’t push when you sense that you are treading on sensitive ground.  Things that you feel completely comfortable talking about openly might be embarrassing to someone else.

If you are going to be able to have more than one interview session, decide what you want to ask in the beginning and later. Even if you have traveled a long distance to interview someone or the time you have together is short, be careful not to outtalk your welcome. After establishing a good relationship with the person you are interviewing, you might be able to follow up with phone calls, letters or e-mail.

The first step is to introduce yourself – if you can have one relative call another and pave the way for you, it will be better. Remind them of how you are related to them. Your first goal is to make them comfortable with you and your project.

Tell your relative the purpose of the interview, about the family research that you are doing. Emphasize that you are interested in their memories and opinions, and not only documents and facts. Promise them that what they tell you will be confidential and only used with their permission. If you write up something based on the interview, they will have the opportunity to review it before you show it to anyone else or publish it.

Tell them that you are going to send some information that you have already gathered about the family tree, and family history, that you want them to see both to jog their memories and to give them the opportunity to suggest corrections. You can tell them a little about this.

On the telephone tell them that you are also going to include a set of questions for them to work on before you come, and also some things that they might look for that you can talk about (share) when you meet.

Schedule first meeting. Suggest that this will take about two hours, and that you may want to call them or get together again to follow up after you have organized the information they will give you.

Send a set of factual questions (below) that they can use to gather information and organize their thoughts before you come.  You can use e-mail, but most people will take a printed questionnaire more seriously.

Here are some things that they might look for and think about and have ready before you come. Use this as a guide and adapt it as your research progresses:

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Family picture albums, wedding albums, high school and college yearbooks and baby books (with some notes about people in and dates of photos)

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Diaries, old letters, postcards, telegrams, newspaper clippings; specifically ask about letters which may have been passed down from their parents and grandparents

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Documents, certificates and records having to do with immigration, naturalization and citizenship for themselves or their parents or grandparents

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any memorabilia having to do with immigration (passports, ship records, etc.); Any documentation about family history that they have;

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School records

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occupational records, military service records, a list of all places they have lived

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ask them to show you any documents they have that show dates and other details of birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, death (certificates or obituaries) for parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, children and self  

Sometimes copies of original vital records documents can yield information that has been forgotten or will only be revealed once a full translation has been made. If they don’t have documents such as birth certificates or marriage or death records, ask them to make a list and check it’s accuracy with other relatives.

When you get together, all of these materials are important sources of information in themselves, but are also starting points for open-ended conversation. You ask questions and give lots of time for memories to flow.

In your letter say that you are going to be asking them some of the following questions, and you are telling them now, so that they can think about them, and possibly talk to other relatives about:

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Your memories associated with important people and key events in your life – your childhood experiences, about your parents, grandparents, and other relatives; you are going to ask, “What stands out in your memory” about each person, “What was special or unusual about this person.” 

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Are there some special stories or “family lore” that you were taught?

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What was your role in the family as a child, adolescent, young adult?  How did you meet your spouse? What is your role in the marriage? What clubs did you belong to as a child, adolescent, adult? When your parents got older, what happened to them?

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What major illnesses have you and other members or your family had? If your parents and grandparents are deceased, do you know what illnesses they died of? If you feel that this is too personal an area at this stage, put this off until you have developed a more personal face-to-face relationship. If at all possible, do not neglect information about physical and mental illness, as there are many illnesses which are genetic in origin.

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Education: both formal and self-taught for themselves and other members of their family. What professions did different members of the family practice?

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What professional organizations did they belong to?

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Religious education; religious practices of your grandparents, parents, your own family. Did you and your spouse and children have bar, bat mitzvah or confirmation ceremonies following religious school? What about synagogue membership and other activities related to the synagogue?

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Describe the different communities that you were raised in and lived in up until the present (the list of all places of residence will help here.) How were you and your family involved in the community?

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What languages were spoken in the home (i.e., what languages other than English did your parents or grandparents speak?) What languages do you speak or read?

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Were there any encounters with the law in the family history, in America or “the old country?”

Try to arrange for privacy during the interview by planning ahead. Be sure you are both comfortable. You should plan to take notes and tape-record the interview. Be sure that you have enough tapes for at least the planned two-hour session. You should say that you are tape recording so that you can concentrate on the interview and insure accuracy.

Take a photo of the two of you, to leave with or send to your subject and another of him/her alone. At this point if you haven’t already brought it up, you might ask if you could have copies made (at your expense) of some of the documents and photographs you’ve seen.

Be sure to call or write to the person, thanking him or her for their help. In the future you might need more assistance or an introduction to another relative, and you want the memory to be a pleasant one.

 

 

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