Interviewing your relatives
By Jeremy Palmer, Dip. Gen.

Talk to your older relatives
Overcoming reluctance to provide information
Preparation of questions
Types of questions to ask
Find the family records
True or false?

Everyone’s family history will be different and unique but the steps that need to be taken to uncover the information are often very similar. In the majority of cases, the best first step anyone can take would be to question other family members about what they know regarding the family history. By this means it is often possible to uncover information on several generations of the family in an afternoon or two.

Talk to your older relatives
Many people only begin their interest in the family history as they themselves grow older and the opportunity to quiz their parents and grandparents about their knowledge of the family is often long gone. The key point is to ask sooner rather than later if at all possible. Parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents may know some very useful information about their own parents and grandparents which can push back your family research two or three generations and provide you with a firm starting point for your work amongst the historical records. If elderly relatives are not available to you then your siblings and cousins may also have some extra family details of which you are unaware. By talking to as many people as possible you will be able to collect lots of information.

Overcoming reluctance to provide information
Whilst the majority of people are happy to reminisce about family memories and events, some family members may be reluctant to discuss details of birth, marriage and death due to possible family skeletons. The birth of a child before the marriage of the parents is not out of the ordinary now but in the early 20th century it may have been a family scandal. Some older family members may still be reluctant to talk about such events and may not understand why you want to go “digging up the past”. In these cases you need to patiently explain why you want to talk about the family and how their information may be able to you. Promising to share the results of your findings can often stimulate your relatives and make them curious about the family history too.

Preparation of questions
You should do some work in advance of the interview to prepare the types of questions you want to discuss. However, no one likes to feel interrogated and so the meeting with your relative should be more of a friendly discussion than a question and answer session. It is important to make the person feel comfortable and at ease and so by reminiscing about family stories with your relative you will often discover lots of details and facts along the way which a series of direct questions might not have uncovered. You may wish to make notes on a notepad or perhaps record the meeting on tape or even on video. Recording the proceedings will allow you to review the information at your leisure later but may perhaps be a little off-putting for your subject.

Types of questions to ask
Older people are especially fond of correcting younger members of the family. A direct question such as “What was the name of your grandfather?” may be met with an uncertain answer whereas one such as “Your grandfather was named George, wasn’t he?” may elicit a response along the lines of “No, that was his brother. Granddad was called Thomas after his father.” Similarly, when asking about dates if is often a good tactic to give some sort of reference point – “Was it before the war that he was born?” or “Did the family move here after the depression?”. Old photographs can be very useful as an aid for getting further details. “Is this your mother at the house in Newcastle?” may bring up the entirely unknown details that the family had lived for a time in Melbourne perhaps.

Find the family records
As well as trying to find out facts and dates it is also worth enquiring about family records and documents. You may discover that a particular cousin has inherited all of your grandparents’ documents and letters after their house was sold. These may help you with information about earlier generations of the family. Other family members may have a collection of photographs that have been passed down their side of the family rather than to you. Similarly, some of your questions should also be about the life of your relative. People love talking about themselves and family history is all about discovering how people lived, what they did, why they did it and so much more than just bare names, dates and places. Recording this sort of information now will ensure that it is not lost to future generations.

True or false?
Of course, not all of the information you are given may be correct – but at least you have a starting point to begin your research and you can check the accuracy of the information against documentary sources. Memories can get vague over time and so just because the documentary sources do not tie in with your grandmother’s recollections, it does not necessarily mean that the records are wrong. Family stories, such as being the disinherited owner of the big estate, or the illegitimate son of the local nobleman, are often embellished as each generation retells the story to the next. There is usually a grain of truth in the story but you may discover that your ancestor merely worked on the estate or that he was the illegitimate son of a servant in the nobleman’s household.

By talking to as many relatives as possible you will gain some very interesting knowledge about your immediate ancestors and the lives they lived. You will also get a useful starting point for research amongst historical records.

As you gather more and more information, you can add your notes or complete stories to your Ancestry Family Tree. Simply click on the ‘Stories’ tab to get started. You can then share this information with the rest of your family and perhaps more memories may surface which can then be added to your initial story.

Jeremy Palmer has been a full time professional genealogist since 1992. He was the Registrar at The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Canterbury, England for many years before emigrating to Australia where he now runs his own research business which specialises in tracing the British origins of families in Australia and New Zealand. He also lectures on a wide variety of family history topics for the Society of Australian Genealogists.

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