researchers want to find documents to verify life events in ancestors'
lives. What if records have been destroyed or provide facts that conflict
with one another? People are great sources of information. Their eyes,
ears, noses and sense of touch have passed on impressions to their brains
describing many aspects of our world, including people and events. A careful
interview can uncover a goldmine of information locked in the memory of
How far back in time will interviews take us? Most families have members
who have reached 70 or 80 years of age. These people can guide us back
to near the beginning of this century. But living witnesses are not
the only people whose testimonies should be admitted to our pool of
genealogical resources. Biographies, autobiographies, newspaper interviews,
and other eyewitness accounts recorded in the past can guide researchers
back hundreds of years in time. Verification of these accounts is required;
however, most of them contain significant amounts of accurate information.
Interviews can unearth family stories, myths, traditions and legends
that extend a family's history back in time one or two centuries. Some
of the information in these stories may be false, but wedged between
the false or distorted elements may be facts that are known only to
the storytellers or preservers of tales in the family. All evidence,
written and oral, must be tested for accuracy so that the untrue or
exaggerated can be discarded, while the facts that survive scrutiny
can be added to the family's legacy.
Before selecting people to interview, family historians must decide
what it is they wish to learn. Analyzing pedigree charts and family
group records, beginning with the researcher's family and expanding
the review to ancestors and descendants, will produce a list of people
about whom some facts are missing: parents' names, event dates and places,
occupations, residences, life-changing events, glimpses into personal
life, descriptions of life in the past, even health information. A list
of missing facts will help the genealogist decide whom to interview
and the questions to ask.
After the researcher examines the list of facts, he or she should
write questions that would motivate the person being interviewed to
provide the required information. In a few cases this is best accomplished
with a question that requires a yes or no answer or an answer containing
specific details: "When was Uncle Wesley born?" "What was Grandpa's
occupation?" Most of the time the questioner wants the subject to expand
his or her answer so that context can be developed that will aid in
assessing the accuracy or value of the answer: What do you remember
about Uncle Wesley's birth? Did you ever watch Grandpa Miller at work?
The length of the list does not matter. If the researcher has many questions,
more than one interview can be scheduled.
With a completed list of questions, the family historian should decide
which family member, family friend, employer, teacher or neighbor would
be the best witness. Who was there when it happened or who knew the
participants in events best? More ideas follow in Research Tip 10.