How to interview your relatives – Part I

If you really want to unravel mysteries from your family’s past you might be missing out on your most precious resource – the people that were alive when it all happened! It’s very easy, in these days of vast information technology, to think that all the answers are out there – conveniently posted on a website somewhere – but the truth is that many mysteries will never now be solved because secrets have gone to the grave with their owners. Even if you do find documents which tell you who grandad’s father was, or when great uncle Charlie emigrated to Canada, you may never know the reasons why.

It’s well worth making the time to visit your oldest living relative and spending a few hours with them talking about their past. Here is Part I of my 8 top tips for making it a fruitful and enjoyable experience:

  1. Get organised. Book a time with your relative when neither of you has to dash off and interrupt the flow. You’ll only need 1-2 hours as it can be a tiring experience for both of you. It’s better to ask for two or three short interviews rather than one mammoth one. Don’t forget to record the date and both your names and dates of birth for posterity – otherwise you may just be creating more unsolved mysteries for future generations! Get together any other memory joggers (see Part II).
  2. Figure out how you are going to record your conversation. Are you going to try and write it all down? If so you’ll need plenty of paper and pencils – these can be handy when talking about photographs too (see Part II). If you are going to use your phone or a camera, have you got enough storage space and batteries? Recording only voices might make your relative feel less self-conscious as they won’t feel like they’re having to put on a show for the camera. Consider taking a few still photographs to go with the soundtrack.
  3. Make your relative comfortable, physically and emotionally. Have plenty of tea and water available in case of croaky throats. Are they warm enough? Sitting comfortably? If you sense that they are not happy talking about a certain subject, don’t push too hard or get into an argument with them. Allow them to retain control of the conversation. They may even come back to difficult issues themselves.
  4. Build trust. If you haven’t visited your relative for a long while or there has been some family tensions, they may be wondering about your motives. Be clear and open about why you want the information. Tell them who you are going to share the information with – whether it’s just for family or to put on a public web page. Perhaps offer to give them a copy of your interview when you have written it up.

See Part II for tips 5-8.

Question: Do you have any tips for interviewing your relatives? Or have you had any problems getting information from them?

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