Interviewing your own family

Why interview your family?

Interviewing your family can be fun for both you and the person you're interviewing. By doing interviews you'll find out more about your family and community history than books alone can ever teach you. You'll also be creating a valuable record of someone's life and helping them remember their past will help you see how the past shapes the present.

Why Oral History?

BooksHistory books often only cover famous events and famous lives. Oral history gets round this. Through talking to people, you'll get a thorough account of an individual's life history.  Oral history allows the ordinary and extraordinary accounts of a person's life to be heard and recorded. This is what makes it really valuable; without the documentation oral history produces, a life's experiences and stories might be lost forever. It's this preservation of the past that makes interviewing your uncles, aunts, grandparents etc. really worthwhile.

Choose and contact your relative

House of Romanov family treeBefore choosing who to interview you should research the topic that you want to investigate (for example, first impressions of coming to the UK). You might think about reading old diaries and letters, looking at photos, searching the Net etc, getting to know as much as possible about the person and the topic. A good place to start would be finding out which relative knows most about the family and from there you can map a family tree and get a picture of who you want to interview. If you don't know who to ask then your immediate family might be able to help.

Once you have found the relative(s) you want to interview, you can contact them by phone, mail, email, going round to their home etc. – whatever you think is the best way. When you contact your relative:

  • Outline when and why you want to interview them or give them a written list of questions.
  • Say what will be involved and what they'll need to do in the interview or follow-on letter/email (e.g. will their answers be tape recorded? How long will it take, roughly? Would you like them to bring photos etc?).

It may be difficult to make the first approach to someone you don't know very well, so you might ask a relative to make the first contact. Try to make a good impression with your first phone call, letter or email. Don't always think that one-on-one interviews are the best or only way to go. You could interview members of your family in a group – you may get even better responses and more in-depth discussions of lives and topics.

Face-to-face, by mail, over the phone or on the web?

You can get more information on how to record the interview in Recording Memories.

Face-to-face interviews are ideal as conversation is most natural that way. If this isn't possible, though, you could do the interview over the phone, this cuts travel costs (particularly to India or Bangladesh!). Phoning does have its disadvantages – especially if it is a relative you don't know very well – because it's harder to really motivate and maintain enthusiasm when your interviewee can't see your expressions. However, this can get easier as the interview goes on.

Airmail letterSometimes interviews over the phone or in person won't be possible, especially with relatives overseas. This doesn't mean that you can't uncover the life history of your relatives. You could send a letter with your questions. However you won't get the back-and-forth dialogue that comes with phone and face-to-face interviews and you'd have to be really careful about making sure you ask all the really important questions.

Internet cafeUsing the Internet  might be another way. Apart from sending an email, there are lots of other tools to help you do an interview. You could think about using instant messaging services (like MSN Messenger©) or online phone tools (like Skype©) to conduct real-time conversations. You'd have to make sure that both you and your interviewee have the applications installed on your computer, as well as microphones and sound blasters/headphones.

Preparing questions

Your main questions should be written around a topic or theme that you want to investigate. You should thoroughly research this topic as this will help you to have a better grasp of what your interviewees are talking about.

Syedpur - singing songs in the evening with a dotara and harmoniumYour first questions should be  the 'who?', 'what?', 'when?', 'where?', 'why?' and 'how?' questions. Start off with easy questions such as where they were born, their early life then move onto more specific questions such as asking them about an event or experiences, for instance a description of a typical Saturday evening at home. Also think about asking how the event made them feel. Feelings are often left off the pages of history, but they are central to people's lives and can really help you understand events. When you prepare your questions, remember to make sure that there is structure to them, e.g. order them by date.

Finally, you can test out your questions beforehand on a friend or relative. This will help build your confidence and highlight anything that you need to change, like the wording of the question or length. Shorter questions often work better.

Conducting the interview

The more complicated aspects of conducting an interview and selecting equipment are covered in Recording Memories.

Where to do the interview

A condenser microphoneChoose a place that is quiet and free from distractions. Pay attention to background noise. If there's a lot of noise, can you move to another room or close windows? If there's a loud ticking clock, can you move it? (But remember to put it back!)

What to bring

Remember to bring the recorder and extra batteries (just in case). Make sure there is enough recording space (if it is digital) or have extra tapes at hand. You might need a notepad and pen/pencil. Maybe, if your family have them, you could bring some photographs to jog memories.

What to do

  • Test the recorder and make sure that it is picking up voices clearly;
  • Be relaxed, friendly, and patient – even if your interviewee seems to be drifting away from the question;
  • Keep good eye contact and be interested;
  • Give your interviewee enough time to think about and answer your question and don't interrupt unless you really have to;
  • Even if the interviewee feels that parts of his/her life are not that interesting, do encourage them to tell their unique story by showing your interest – you never know what you might find;
  • Don't challenge a response even if you think it's wrong – the interviewee may just remember the event differently.
  • Asking to see photos or diary entries can jog memory. If you are shown a photo, ask questions like when and where it was taken and why;
  • If the interviewee raises some interesting points or talks about events that are not on your question sheet feel free to explore the issues.

What to do afterwards

Do remember to thank your interviewee(s). You can also use this opportunity to ask if they know anyone else you can interview.

You might think about writing a transcript of the interview – your interviewee might appreciate a copy.

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