Interviewing family members

While it may initially seem like the simplest thing in the world to do, I actually found my first attempt at ‘interviewing’ my nan about our family and her memories quite a tricky task. I’m not sure if it’s just because my family are all a bunch of chatterboxes, but I found it pretty difficult to keep our discussion on track and not get distracted from the task at hand.

With this in mind, I had a quick search around for examples of questions that would help me structure my second attempt and spotted this article – How to Write a List of Questions for a Family History Interview | . I think these suggested questions are really helpful as they seem well balanced and should help me build up both a list of facts about the ancestors my nan remembers and also begin to understand what their lives were like.

Although I’ve only just started looking at my family history, I’ve already found it quite an eye-opener as I’ve realized just how little I know. While speaking to my nan, it dawned on me that I’d never actually seen a photo of my grandparents in their younger days. In fact, I know it’s crazy, but I’ve only ever tended to think of them in relation to myself, i.e. that they’re my grandparents. I’m really looking forward to reacquainting myself with them and finding out what their lives were like before they were graced with my presence!

A newly-aquired photo of my grandparents, Pamela Jones and Royston Sell

A newly-aquired photo of my grandparents, Pamela Jones and Royston Sell

4 Responses to “Interviewing family members”

  1. John Cartmell Says:

    From my experience you are better off not trying to guide the conversation too much unless it’s a ‘once only’ interview. Let your interviewee talk and concentrate on getting down what they say, intervening only to clarify items. Then go home, make sense of the information, noting gaps and discrepancies, and research that information. Then go back and ask about about those gaps &c and generate a whole new set of stories. Repeat and re-interview your interviewee together with someone who shared the experiences. In the contradictions that are set up between peoples’ memories and memories v records you will get a rich vein of information.
    NB Don’t delete any information even when records prove it wrong. Keep the original notes and check them as you re-visit that area of research. Sometimes those silly memories prove to be right despite what the original records said.

  2. Charles Seaman Says:

    Interviewing older family members is a must. Fortunately, I was interested when I was still in my teens and both my grandmothers and one great grandmother were still around. Though they didn’t remember dates very well, they were quite good a names. I found some great uncles and their spouses I’d never have known much about otherwise. I also heard stories dating from the late 19th century that otherwise would have been lost. However, do check everything they tell you. I’ve found that the older generations sort of “improveed” on things at times. For example, one tale was that my great great grandfather was a Methodist minister in King’s Lynn. Turns out his uncle was the Methodist minister. Gg grandpa in fact was a lifelong Church of England member. Another story was that gg granddad was harbour master of KL. The census lists him as simply a dock labourer. 😦

  3. Amy Says:

    Thanks for the advice! I think I’m just beginning to crack how to interview family members effectively. While the sample questions I’ve linked to in this post are great to get the ball rolling and direct the interview, I’ve learnt that the key is to encourage your family member to reminisce. I’ve found that looking at photos can be quite a good stimulus for interviews too.

    @John Cartmell and Charles Seaman: How have you recorded interviews with family members? I’ve just been taking notes at the moment – should I consider investing in a dictaphone or do these tend to put too much pressure on the interviewee?

  4. John Cartmell Says:

    I have used notes only because I’ve only ever done such interviews in family groups rather than one-to-one and recordings are rarely good in such circumstances unless you have professional equipment. It’s worth recording who is present by the way – as well as who gives each bit of the info. Stories vary according to the audience! One thing to be aware of and that is that people will tell you what they have decided you want to hear – no matter what your instructions. If it’s not appropriate for your generation or your side of the family then you won’t find out – but get the right audience and disappear into the background and the tales may start.

    Also worth showing the trees that you have drawn. They may tell you that Fred is Sarah’s uncle but put it on a tree and they may tell you that you have it all wrong – Fred was a cousin and only called ‘uncle’ because he was older.

    And always ask for evidence. Funeral cards or silks in Bibles or old books are superb pieces of evidence as are funeral and burial receipts.

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