Stella Colwell (Author and Family Historian) gives expert video advice on: What is the best way to get family members to take part?; I'm not sure what questions I should ask?; How long should interviews take? and more...
What is the best way to get family members to take part?
If your relatives live with you or they live close by, obviously you can chat to them and explain your interest in tracing the family's history, and see whether they would be willing to have a sit-down with you and a good long chat, telling you all they know about the family, and you would write it down then when you'd interviewed them all. Another alternative is, if the relatives don't live anywhere near you or they're people that you've never met before, write to them and express your interest in tracing the family's history. Because you may find that somebody is already doing it for your family, and they'd be very keen to get in touch with you to pool resources. Suggest that you have a meeting maybe three weeks ahead, or ask them to provide a date when you can meet. And a convenient place, which I would strongly recommend would be their home, because that's where they feel more relaxed and comfortable. And if they've got any family ephemerides, such as a family Bible, souvenirs and heirlooms, they're readily at hand. And it also gives them sufficient notice in order that they can prepare for your visit, and it's not too long ahead for them then to have forgotten about it. And it's always a good idea first to tell them what you know about the family so far, in brief, and where your place is in their family. Because if you've not met them before, they may not be really sure exactly how you're related.
I'm not sure what questions I should ask?
The backbone of your family tree are names, the relationships of each of those names to each other, dates and places. The dates that you're looking for are the dates of birth, marriages and death. The places where they lived, and the sort of jobs that they did. So those are the key facts that you're looking for.
How long should interviews take?
When you are interviewing somebody, particularly an older person, they tend to get quite tired after a while and their concentration wonders. In order to get the best out of an interview, it's a good idea to send a list of questions ahead and pause probably after an hour. I wouldn't make an interview last any longer than an hour because they can always meet again, and they will have a good idea of what to expect next time.
Should I interview everyone?
The more the merrier, because everybody's going to have a different slant on family stories. Some may be more forthcoming than others and might be able to fill in gaps that others have left. Obviously, some people might have been more involved in certain events, or have known certain family relatives better than others. So you can get a much fuller picture by interviewing as many family relatives as you can.
What is the best time to interview a family member?
Well, possibly, the best time to interview a family member is when there's been a family event, like a christening, a marriage, or a burial. This is because they are family gatherings at which people tend to loosen up, and they start telling family anecdotes. Another time might be at Christmas, where there is a family gathering and people start talking, perhaps triggered off by a television program or a book that's particularly popular, about family history at the time and it just sets people off. You might get them on the side and interested in helping you with your research so you can pool your resources.
What is the best way of recording the interview handwritten, electronically or digitally?
The best way of doing it is in the way that you both feel comfortable. I personally do it by using sheets of paper, and I just jot down notes rather than recording interviews verbatim, and I might refer to the answers by the number of the question that I've actually asked. Another way of doing it would be by using a tape recorder, but make sure the relative agrees to you using it, because it can be very inhibiting if they're not too sure what you're going to do with the recording afterwards, because it is a permanent record. But what's so nice about a tape recording is that you've got the nuances of voice and dialect, and so it's a permanent record about how people spoke, and the words they used. It may well be that you want to go down the digital route, so again, you would have a camera, and you would maybe at the end of it create a disc, burn a disc, and then circulate the information around the family. But the important thing is, if you are going to use any of the other methods, then using a sheet of paper to always make sure that you have their agreement ahead, and the copyright of course is always theirs, so it's vital that you agree that they would assign the copyright to you.
Any tips on interviewing people?
When you're interviewing somebody,make sure that the atmosphere is relaxed,so that they feel at ease. Probably, the first few questions that you ask them are going to provide stilted answers, But I think, when you interview them, it's a good idea to send them a short list of questions in advance, so that they can think through the line of questioning you're going to follow, and then, they'll have thought about the kinds of answers they're going to give. I mean, these may be supported by documents and other forms of family ephemera that you can use as prompts; so, family documents are extremely useful for actually prompting people into telling you further anecdotes and, if you sense that the person is getting tired, or they're becoming rather sensitive about a subject, be very wary about going down that route any further, Avoid being judgmental, because our culture, the culture that we live in at the moment, might well be different to the sort of culture that they lived in themselves, when they were children. There may be family secrets,so again you'd have to be sensitive about going down that route, as well.
What if my relatives have moved away or dead?
If your family has moved away and it's been in the recent past, go back to the street or the town where they lived and see if you can find out from neighbors and associates anything about the family and where they've gone to, because they may still be in touch or know of people that would be able to help you with more information. If somebody has died, it's always a good idea to go back and have a look and see if there's a cemetery headstone. The local council can advise you about the cemeteries in the area. If they've died recently, there might be a newspaper obituary but you would have to know the date of death. If you go back to the streets or the area where that person lived that might be able to be helpful. Sometimes a parish priest can advise you as well with more information about who to contact, to find out more about the person who's died.
Should I be worried about copyright?
Well, so long as you obey the rule, that when you do any form of recording that the copyright belongs to the speaker. So, if you want to use it or circulate it among the family, it's vital that you get their agreement that the copyright can be assigned to you. Otherwise you would need to ask their consent every time you use it or want to make a copy. It's always a good idea as well to make a backup, so you've not just got the one copy, and keep it separately somewhere else, just in case anything happens to the original, because once the interview is done, there's no going back.