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Family History << Writing a History <<

At some point, many genealogists decide that it's time to shift effort from collecting new information about the family to sharing it with others. Writing a family history is one of the most effective and satisfying ways of doing this. Of course, there are more and more ways to share your findings every day, but publishing a family history continues to be a favorite approach of many genealogists.

Oral History

dad and kids At rare, fortunate, and unexpected moments, people share their fascinating life experiences: a grandmother reminiscing about her childhood on an Iowa farm; a grandfather recalling life as a railroad conductor on passenger trains in New England; an old man on a bus telling a stranger the engrossing story of his brush with fame; a young girl in an airplane excitedly talking about a recent accomplishment. Such people have something important to share. But, all too often, experiences shared by voice die with the teller because they are not written down or recorded.

If you've decided to capture some oral histories, it's a good rule of thumb to start with your oldest relatives first. Because most of them won't write down their life stories, they'll need your help. They often lack the writing skills or health, or perhaps even the energy to spend weeks putting their lives on paper or computer. What a blessing it is, then, both for them and for you, to be able to tape- or video-record their life histories.

Through the magic of a good-quality tape-recorder or video-recorder, adequate preparation, and proper interviewing technique, you can capture vivid reminiscences exactly as described by the person who remembers them. Then, at the touch of a button, you and generations to come can recall the hopes, fears, joys and disappointments of a very real life that you will cherish as part of your heritage.

Just in case they don't want to be interviewed, there are some tactics for securing their participation. Once you've got their agreement, be sure to prepare for the interview. Here are some important steps:

  • Do your homework - get to know about the person so you can ask better and specific questions
  • Develop a list of questions in advance to use during the interview - make sure they're open-ended questions instead of ones that can be answered with simply "yes" or "no"
  • Learn how to use your equipment with ease - don't waste precious interviewing time mastering your tape- or video-recorder. Also, make sure you have more batteries and tape than you think you'll need.
  • Make an appointment - don't just spring yourselves on them - you never know when it's a good time.
  • Don't hurry to do it all in one interview - they might have a lot to tell and being interviewed can be tiring; be willing to conduct the interview in several chunks
  • Test the equipment before beginning the formal interview - there's nothing worse than learning after the fact that the microphone was malfunctioning

 Video Clip
34kbps(56k modem) | 220kbps(DSL/Cable)
Ancestors experts Jessica Wiederhorn and Irene Johnson discuss interviewing family members.

    Here are some additional guidelines to help you get the most from your interview once it's under way:
  • Start with a question you know they'll love to answer - you want to relax them quickly
  • Stifle the impulse to interrupt - let the narrator tell his or her story and do your best to simply listen
  • Let there be pregnant pauses - you'll often find that the interviewee has something more to say just when you were about to move on to another topic
  • Save questions about details for later - let them answer your broad questions completely before following up with questions about details, clarifications or possible contradictions
  • Do more than just listen - listen for clues to whole new topics that hadn't occurred to you before; if you don't want to interrupt the flow, jot notes to remind you to get back to these new topics later
  • Pursue truth and accurate information - you might occasionally need to ask a question several different ways or clarify how the interviewer knows something
  • Allow tangents - let them ramble; there can be goldmines in their ramblings and they'll be more natural than if you cut them off
  • Keep your opinions to yourself - this is their interview, not yours
  • Save sensitive matters until late in the interview - if you broach them too early, your interviewee may close up or even end the session
  • Watch for signs that it's time to take a break - look for signs of fatigue and be sensitive to the needs of the interviewee; plan on no more than 2 hours for a session
  • Ask for other family records or a show-and-tell of materials near the end
And finally, once you're done, take a couple of additional steps to protect the interview you've captured:
  • Label the tape and its container - you don't want to lose all the new treasure you've created due to carelessness
  • Make copies of the tape and store at least one in a very safe place - you may wish to give a copy to the interviewee as well


The information contained on this page comes from a variety of sources, but relies heavily on The Everything Family Tree Book by William G. Hartley (Adams Media, 1998) and Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide to Family History & Genealogy by Jim & Terry Willard with Jane Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997).

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