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Talking to Grandma: How to Successfully Interview your Relatives

The first step to any kind of family history research is to record what is already known. If you haven't been interested in family history in the past, this is most often done by speaking to your relatives, particularly the older living generations. If you don't go into the interview with a clear agenda, you may find that you don't get much accomplished other than chit chat, especially if you don't often see your relatives, so it is important to have a plan before beginning any interview.

Take a notebook or tape recorder if possible to record information. Names and dates all start to run together if you don't keep record of what your relatives are saying. Also, come with a list of questions. Some people may be slightly uncomfortable opening up to you, so begin with questions about the interviewee. For example, ask older relatives what his or her life was like growing up. When they mention their mother or father, jump in to ask about their names, dates of marriage, etc. Be sensitive about deaths of close ones, but you should politely ask this as well to fill in the gaps in your research. Record everything they tell you, even if it seems insignificant at the time. Later in your research, the smallest bit of information may lead you in a new direction. Take careful notes about names, and ask for full name spellings whenever possible. Even a common name, like Sue, might stem from Susan, Suzanne, Suelynn, Bobbisue, or any other of the countless variations. Also write down names of friends that your relatives mention. Even though they are not part of your family tree, if they are living and were close to your family, they might remember names and dates that your relative does not.

Be conscious and considerate of other people's time. Even with your own mother or father, it is important to thank them for spending some time talking with you. Offer to share a copy of your research when you have progressed farther. A thoughtful way to say thank you is to conduct your interview over dinner and pay for the meal at the end. This will also keep you on a time schedule.

Remember that not everything your relatives tell you will be true or exactly accurate, even though they might not consciously be lying to you. Family stories get exaggerated over time, dates get confusing, and even important details are lost to the years. Use you relatives' interviews as a starting point, but confirm all the details with other sources before you consider them facts.

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