​​​Genealogy Detective

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Family Tradition & Oral History
Sharron Mirikitani

History too often seems like the study of long lists of names, events and dates. Students seldom get the chance to act as historians who record and interpret history for themselves and for others. Historians often act like detectives who are trying to solve intriguing puzzles. They search for information and collect it, but most important, they draw conclusions from facts. Students can write their own histories of an important place, event or person. They can examine documents, letters, diaries, photographs, maps and folk songs to get closer to people and events of the past. Explaining and understanding the past connects us to our families, communities and country. We probably can never really fully understand those who lived before us, but the effort helps us understand our society, and perhaps finally, ourselves.”
Quote  from http://www.history.com/images/media/interactives/oralhistguidelines.pdf

Researchers often overlook the value of oral history, or family traditions. Very often the stories passed down through the generations have changed and evolved, but there is always a kernel of truth at the heart of the story. As a family historian, it is important not only preserve these family traditions, but to record as much information as possible.

Interviewing Family Members
Conducting interviews with older family members is extremely important. When they pass on, their precious memories go with them. By interviewing them, you may learn a great deal about your ancestors that were not normally discussed around the dinner table. There are a number of ways to conduct an interview. You can conduct an interview in person, on the phone, by mail correspondence or even by email. Planning is the key to a successful interview.

Preparing For An Interview
Many family members may feel uncomfortable about being interviewed. It is very important that you plan the interview well. Make sure you have the necessary supplies prior to the interview, so the person you are interviewing doesn't feel uncomfortable while you are shuffling to prepare for the interview. Some things you might want to bring for an interview are:

  • A writing pad and writing utensils
  • A tape recorder, fresh batteries and a new tape for the recorder.
  • A list of names and dates of family members that you would like to discuss with the family member.
  • Notes on the family history that you want confirmed or clarified.
  • A digital camera to make photos to document you interview. A photo of the person you interview, their home, or even landmarks in the area can all become part of your family history.

Personal Interview
Be sure to start the recording with the date of the interview and whom you are speaking with. It is probably best to put the recorder discreetly out of sight, so the person being interview will not be as intimidated. Try to make this interview seem like the casual conversation that you might have at a family gathering. Remember to ask for copies of original documents, photos, or anything that may add value to your compiling your family history.

Telephone Interview
Very often we are not able to sit down with a family member, but we can conduct an interview by phone. Prior to making a call, make sure you have a prepared list of questions. Listen carefully and make sure your notes are clear and thorough. There are devices available that will enable you to record your phone conversation. If you do plan on making a recording, ask permission to record the conversation and make that part of the recorded interview.

Letter Correspondence
It is important to keep a correspondence record of all your letter requesting genealogical information. You can print out a correspondence record sheet from the Smithsonian site at http://www.folklife.si.edu/resources/pdf/InterviewingGuide.pdf . Some family members, especially the older ones, may feel more comfortable about corresponding with you in writing. Handwritten letters are a valuable source of information for generations. Always include an SASE, self addressed stamped envelope.

Email Correspondence

Genealogy was given an incredible boost with the rapid growth of information available on the internet. Genealogy websites, bulletin boards, and family trees provide an expanded world of possibilities. Through the internet, we are able to connect to other researchers, distant relatives an members of lost branches of our family tree. Just as with letter correspondence, you should keep a correspondence record.

Family Journal
A family journal, or history, is frequently overlooked as a valuable tool in building your family tree. I have found the scrapbook approach to be an easy method of compiling a family history. I started my personal journal with a collection of photographs that I arranged chronologically. For each photo, I wrote my memories of all that was happening in my family at that time. This is an excellent way of compiling an historical record of your family after many years have passed. Your memories die with you, so it is important to leave a written legacy of your life.

Photographs are wonderful tools to stimulate faded memories. As you go through your photographs make sure to document the back of the photo for future generations. Pretend you are a researcher who found this photo a hundred years from now. Now, write down all the information you wanted to know. Please don't write directly on the back of the photo with ink because it may bleed through and ruin the photo. Put some non-acid tape or a label on the back and write on that. I recommend writing on the label first and then attach it to the back of the photo.

RESOURCES: You may be surprised to find there are organizations devoted to the preservation of oral history. Some of these organizations can be found at:

Oral History Association
Oral History Society
Oral History Guide
Smithsonian Interview Questions
Interview Guidelines
Ancestry.com Interview Guidelines
UCLA LIBRARY Oral History Questions

Family Search writing and publishing a booklet