Monday, August 14, 2017

Getting Started: Interviewing Relatives

Genealogy comes in a lot of flavors. For many of us, it's a personal journey of self-discovery. We do it in pajamas, on couches, without a whole lot of human interaction. In my heart of introvert hearts, nothing makes me happier than digging through an unindexed image collection on FamilySearch by myself. Exactly because I don't have to see or talk to anyone.

You know, the finer things in life!

But here's the thing about researching your family history: it's their story, too! In order to tell it, you're going to need their help. Maybe you have questions only your grandparents can answer. Or your great aunt Mable, who you've only met twice, is the one with all the good photos. Or maybe you're an adoptee, and the only biological relatives you've ever encountered are the names on a DNA match list. Knowing how to conduct family interviews is an important skill to have in these moments. But when that doesn't come naturally to you, it can be daunting and intimidating!

I've had my share of good and bad experiences with family interviews. And even when you try to do everything right, they don't always turn out how you want them to. So let's talk about family interviews: the good, the bad, and everything in between. If your interview goes well, you'll find some great tips here to capture everything you need to know! If it doesn't, at least you'll have a great story to share in the comments!

How Do I Prepare?

This may seem odd, but the secret to a good interview is you. Do you know how to listen, without being distracted by what you're going to say next? Are you comfortable with silence? If you offend someone or stumble into an uncomfortable subject, do you know how to respond? The most uncomfortable way to discover negative answers to these questions is in the middle of an interview. Especially with someone you don't know well. 

If all you want to know is grandma's favorite color and what size shoe she wears, this may seem like some overly ambitious preparation. But I remember being a teenage genealogist, and asking my grandmother what her father's name was. To me, that seemed like a pretty innocent question. But for my paternal grandmother, it was a difficult and painful question to answer. She had grown up in a foster home, and never knew her father. And it took ten years of circling back around to that same question for me to hear the story she had to tell.

We are not in charge of deciding if, when, or how someone tells their story. That is not the purpose of an interview. Ten years of trying and failing with my grandmother taught me this. All I could do is create the safest space I could for her, and accept whatever story she tells me. If I ask her about her childhood in Canada, and she wants to talk about all of her doctor's appointments since the last time I spoke to her, guess who's actually in charge of the conversation?

That's right. The one with the information. Not the one asking the questions. Preparing to do an interview, first and foremost, has to mean letting go of our expectations of what we expect to get out of it. Only when people sense that sincere willingness to listen will they truly open up about their experiences. A good interview relies upon that sincere, meaningful connection.

Who Should I Talk To?

What do you want to know, and which relative has that information? It sounds so straightforward when you say it like that. But depending on what you need to know, who the person is, and how well you know them, you may be in for a real challenge. And finding the right person to talk to may be the hardest part!

You may come across the names of people in interviews with other relatives, in obituaries, or online trees. Social media is also a fantastic way to find distant relatives, especially in conjunction with DNA results. But sometimes, you'll stumble into relatives completely by accident. Such was the case when I wrote this blog post many years ago about meeting my father's half sister.

Because of my initial encounter with her, I got many clues that continue to influence my research. By the time our first phone call ended, I had in my mind a very rosy image of how things would go. Phone calls several times a year, Christmas cards, an ongoing conversation about new discoveries I was making. I invested a lot of hope into our follow-up meeting, especially for additional questions I wanted to ask.

Originally, she and I talked about meeting together at her home. But within a few days, she rescheduled to meet me by herself at a restaurant. I spent some time making up some pedigree charts and family group sheets to share. By time I showed up at the appointed place and time, I couldn't wait to meet her, to show her everything I'd found.

Minutes ticked away. The time we agreed to meet came and went. I glanced at my phone, over and over. After forty minutes, I got a phone call.

She wasn't coming. No, she didn't want to reschedule.

That was it. The one time I spoke to her on the phone was the only chance I would ever have. Had I known that, I would have prepared much differently for my original phone call with her. And when it comes to finding relatives, that is my most important advice. Never assume you'll have more time, or another chance to connect with someone. Treat every conversation like it might be your last. Because sometimes, no matter how good your intentions, people don't give you the chance to know them. But if you make the most of what opportunities you do have, without expecting more to follow, you never really have to be disappointed.

What Should I Ask?

When most of us think of interviews, coming up with good questions is where our minds go first. But what makes a good question? How many is your relative willing to answer? What questions will help them to talk about what interests them? Do they even need you to ask them questions to get them talking? Consider your research. What are the most important gaps you need to fill? All of these factors will shape the questions you come up with.

You can also search around online for inspiration. This list, as well as this one and that one and here, have some great places to start. Use any of these questions, or come up with your own.

Many people become frustrated with interviews when they are asked too many questions they don't know the answer to. It begins to feel like an interrogation, and may distract from the stories they might otherwise tell. While our research problems may require targeted questions, it's important to balance how many questions we ask with space for the person to speak freely. And whenever the person is talking, always be listening. You never know when the clue you need later might be in something your relative is saying right now.

One of my cousins I met through Facebook loves comic books. It would be easy for me to think that if I'm talking about comics, I'm not talking about genealogy. But nothing could be further from the truth for their family. Many of the stories I was interested in hearing about his father were also connected to comic books. Favorite heroes, favorite memories of going to buy comics together, how other family members would also participate. Those stories about comics have given me a much truer sense of what his father was like, more than any other question I might have come up with.

I may not understand a lot of what goes on in the world of comic books. But I now understand how important they were to my cousin and his father. That insight was truly a gift, one of my favorite series of interviews I've ever done. And I didn't need to be an expert. I just needed to make his interests an open-ended part of the conversation, and listen as he told his story.

What Should I Bring?

What are your goals for your interview? If you're looking to preserve a conversation, as well as the information it contains, much of what you need is probably in your pocket. Phones, tablets, computers, cameras, and audio recorders all have the capacity to record simple audio or video. How good you want that record to be will determine the equipment you need to use.

I personally enjoy making audio recordings. They tend to be less intrusive and intimidating to my family members. One set of recordings I treasure are from a lunch date with my mother, grandmother, my great aunt, and younger sister. I prepared a list of questions for my grandmother, and planned to record her answers with my cell phone.

Instead, my mother and great aunt jumped into the conversation as well. I left the recording running to capture it all. What I have instead is the banter between the women in my family. The sizzle of food cooking, the sound and volume of different voices, the laughing and shouting as conversations ebb and flow. Topics and stories I hadn't planned for. A verbal snapshot in time, as valuable as any picture.

From making it, however, I made an unfortunate discovery about smart phone audio. Many cell phones record in odd micro formats that aren't compatible with other audio players or devices. The format may also be low quality, and susceptible to data loss. For more on the basics of audio formats and preservation, see this guide from FamilySearch. And if you need something to play an audio file in one of these formats, VLC is great. I've yet to have a cell phone produce a weird file type that VLC couldn't play.

You may not be able to change the file type your phone uses when it records audio. If you have a smart phone, you can often access greater functionality through different apps. Searching your app store for audio recorders is one option. Searching for converters for ht audio files you already have is another. But don't forget that many of the major genealogy apps have added audio capabilities. Even if you can only upload the recordings you've already made, let this be part of your preservation process.

Interviews with family members are invaluable sources of new information. They provide richness and depth to the records we're creating about the people we meet. Whether they're our closest family members, or distant cousins we met on the internet, let interviews become the lifeblood of your genealogy. Nothing else you do will bring your relatives more to life!

What are your favorite tips for conducting family interviews? Who was your favorite relative to interview? Any horror stories you want to share? Let us know in comments!