|Photograph by Jusben at www.morguefile.com|
Lets face it most people love to talk about their lives. Thankfully this makes gathering an in-depth family history a bit easier. To begin building your family history you may want to encourage story telling sessions either in a group setting or individually with family members. Using props such as family heirlooms, old photos or home movies to revive memories is a great way to get the stories going.
Family gatherings are perfect for learning about your family's past. Just set up a video recorder off to the side in the room where most of the family gather. If your family is like mine that would probably be the kitchen or dining room. To get the stories rolling make a comment about a particular event you are aware of or bring out an old photo or family heirloom. Often it does not take much more than that, and stories begin to unfold, with each member adding their memories of the event. Later you can follow up with individual family members to get more detailed stories of the events discussed at the gathering, as well as other memories they may have.
When you do follow up be sure to create an informal atmosphere so they will be more comfortable telling their story. While letting them know you are working on gathering information for a family history project may make the subject a tad nervous I believe it is important that know because they may be alright with telling you more than they might want future generations to know. This will also open the door for you to ask for permission to either record the discussion with either a video or audio recorder. Turn your cell phone off and give them your full attention keeping eye contact and giving appropriate responses, and they will be more apt to open up while telling their story. Don't let pauses in the story scare you, be patient give them time to collect their thoughts and memories.
Ask questions that draw out the story not ones that can be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no' response. Your questions should start with when, why, how, where and what. It is also good to ask about how they felt, as feelings are very difficult to learn from other records and documents. As you listen to their story additional questions will come to you that can be asked to expand on information already received. However, don't interrupt to ask the question just jot it down on a notepad to be asked later. Don't stress out that you aren't asking the right questions or asking them the right way, just be yourself and relax and your family member will likely relax as well. Not sure what to ask? Check out this list of top 50 questions to ask family members for ideas and inspiration.
Once you have developed a sense of easiness with your family member be sure to ask the personal questions, such as those about first loves, hard times. What ever you do though don't challenge or judge the story teller or their story, it is their story after all. You may think it is not accurate, when it may just be that you are hearing it from a different perspective than you have heard it before. Just as with world history every event has at least two sides, so collecting multiple versions of a story can give later generations a better understanding of the events as they affected various members of the family.
Collecting family history should be an ongoing effort, not that you need to have formal interviews each year but that you should continue to ask questions and gather new stories for your family history book. Here are a few ideas that can help you continue your efforts: Create or purchase a Family Journal that you can record information in when you come across it, and don't forget to take it with you anytime you visit family; start a new family tradition and send each member a 'Yearly Event Questionnaire' for them to fill out on New Years Eve and return to you for inclusion in the Family History Journal (don't forget to include a self addressed stamped envelope for them to return it to you); Another possibility is to create a family website that allows members to add photos and stories for events as they occur, this can be very fun especially if your family is into technology. In addition to family members there are many genealogy resources on the internet, some with very detailed records.
Keep in mind that while this all takes time it is time well spent. You will not only get a chance to learn your family's history but you may also find that you become closer to various members of the family through the sharing of memories. The more members you have contributing to your family history the better it will become. You will be rewarded with a very detailed record of your family that will become cherished not only by you but by future generations.
For more details on conducting an oral history interview check out the 'Top 10 Tips for Great Interview Stories' which covers some of the above information and more.