Interviewing Family: What Should I Ask? Major Life Events

Interviewing Family Lifespan SurveyWhat questions should I ask? Here’s a strategy for coming up with questions based on what you know about the person. Create a rough structure of the person’s life. List what you know about the person. List what you know about the time period. Look at it and then let the questions suggest themselves.

The structure of your interviewee’s life

Symbolpeople stages of life

Image above comes with a hat-tip to my friend Symbolman, who’s animated some stories about life using Symbolpeople. check out Boy Meets Girl.)

The low-tech version uses a piece of paper. High tech version uses a spreadsheet that you can download. 

I’ll use my dad as an example. He’s no longer alive (which is one reason I’ll use some specifics from his life)

  1. Create a document with a few columns across the top: Calendar year, Age (how many years old), and then more columns to note life’s events. A column for where he lived, a column for school and work, a column for major life events, and a column for historical events going on at ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 27, 2010 in • Interviewing
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Digital Family History as understood by Digital Natives with 500 IRL Facebook friends

Maiden Aunt w iPod It’s not the same thing as what Ye Olde Maiden Aunt used to collect and curate. An intriguing article by fellow Association of Personal Historians member Jane Lehman-Shafron, she notes the current trends (look! TV shows! Newspaper articles!), but also points out how family history in digital form is being used by the next generation, the Digital Natives who grow up immersed in computing technology.

The form that family history is taking changes with the times. 

Today’s younger generations are more interested in family history than ever before. The whole country is. But they are demanding that those maiden aunts (and all the rest of us who fulfill the function of “family historian”) get with the times. They want their family history accessible and they want it compelling.

Speaking as the


single Aunt whose spent a lot of time in the technology industry—I’m even called AuntiAlias—it’s a computer graphic pun (know what anti-aliasing is?), I’m one of those Aunts who is pushing everyone forward in digital pursuits when it comes to family history.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 26, 2010 in • DigitalityGenealogyPersonal History
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Interviewing Family: Why not Why?

image What’s wrong with “Why?” In the previous post, I wrote about asking open-ended questions, that is, questions that would elicit a lengthy story or explanation. Something more than a yes or no answer. “Why?” is a question designed to get a lengthy reply. So why don’t I say to use “why?”

The answer is not “Because I said so.” But there’s something about that famous familial exchange (“Why?” “Because I said so!”) that gets at the heart of Why Not Why.

Remember the two parts of attitude I mentioned yesterday?

  1. Be Curious.
  2. Be Non-Judgmental.

Asking a question using the word “Why?” might sound judgemental.

Especially if you’re family.

When a family member asks another family member a question that begins with Why?, it might put the second person on the defensive in the same way as “Why didn’t you take out the trash?”

You want to elicit information and stories, not put the person on the spot.

(I’m indebted to Kim Leatherdale’s comments on the Lifetime Memories ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 24, 2010 in • GenealogyInterviewing
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Three Weeks to Jamboree: Interviewing Family

Interviewing Family (Jamboree countdown) badge Countdown to Jamboree in Burbank, California – Family Interview edition. Rise and shine early Sunday morning, June 13 at Jamboree and learn some good info about interviewing family. I’ll be leading two sessions – one on the skills of an interviewer, the second on the skills of an audio engineer. This week at Family Oral History Using Digital Tools I’ll be discussing different ways to come up with good questions to ask your family member when you sit down to interview him or her.

“I’m going to interview my Uncle Al. What do I ask?”

I get asked this question—a lot. What do you ask someone that you’re going to visit?

I’ll get more into the specifics of strategies of how to come up with questions to ask, but for now, I’ll give you a few tips on attitude.

Your job as an interviewer is to elicit information and stories from the other person. Period. The rest is just details.

All the pointers I’ll be offering are consistent with your job as story eliciter. (not to be confused with Story Elixer, though perhaps you want your questions to act as a kind of story elixer) The job is to elicit stories. I’ll tell you more about different ways to do that.

Your attitude ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 23, 2010 in • Do it: Learn HowGenealogyInterviewing
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Survivor meets Oral History

image The last survivors. Last ones alive, who experienced… what, exactly? That’s the subject of a book by Stuart Lutz. Lutz interviewed 39 last survivors of many different experiences. The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors is the oral history of those 39 people, with each chapter combining background information with the first-person narratives of each Last Survivor’s oral history.

So who were some of these people who witnessed amazing people and events?

  • The last living soldier of the great war
  • The last suffragette
  • The last pitcher from whose pitch Babe Ruth hit a home run
  • The last man to fly with Amelia Earhart
  • The last three Civil War windows (one Union, two Confederate)
  • The last survivor of the Lusitania sinking
  • The last surviving employee of Thomas Edison
  • The last man to live in the White House in the 1920s

And wouldn’t you know it? Lutz got his interest in history from stories he heard from his own family.

Lutz, a Maplewood [NJ] resident in his 30s, has always been fascinated with the nearness of the past. As a boy, he listened rapt as his ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 21, 2010 in • BooksOral history in the news
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I’m following Digital Death Day today. Remotely

Digital Death Day: RIP, bits What happens to your bits after you die? That’s the premise behind the Digital Death Day unconference, currently in progress. (On twitter, check out the #ddd2010 hashtag). I’ll be posting provacative tweets and topics here on an ongoing basis.

Why does Family Oral History deal with digital death? The recordings of conversations that are saved in digital formats is the deliberate creation of digital bits that are meant to last longer than the speakers whose voices are recorded therein. It’s an edge-case of the central phenomenon explored at the conference. What happens to your bits once you die?

Here, in no particular order, are tweets from those in attendance, as a kind of thought-piece about the digital lives we have. Plus, for me, having experienced three deaths of people close to me in less than a year (and many more remote as friends’ parents shake off this mortal coil), it’s highly relevant.

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 20, 2010 in • DigitalityLongevityPersonal History
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The Interviewer’s Goal: Enabling a Mental Journey into the Past

image Stumbled upon this awesome description of The Interviewer’s Dream Moment, posted by Don Ray. It’s part of the setup for a story he’s going to tell, but it jumped out as the! most! perfect! description! of a kind of zen state of interviewing:

Countless times in my 30+ years as a reporter, producer, author and teacher, I’ve looked into the eyes of people I was interviewing and realized that they weren’t there with me—they had taken a mental journey into the past. They were somewhere else. I eventually learned to remain as silent as possible so that they could stay in that place—any questions would quickly bring them back to the present.

He goes on to talk about an experience where he was transported into hiw own past, back in Vietnam, trying to save a dog’s life. It’s a story worth reading for its own sake.

The unwritten part of this process for the interviewer is to ask the right kind of question that facilitates the ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on in • InterviewingPersonal History
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Dollarhide free eBook—I take what he says further

image You can download a free eBookGetting Started in Genealogy Online, by William Dollarhide. (Hat tip to Ancestories and Renee’s Genealogy Blog)

So I clicked, downloaded and read. I’ll take what he says a little bit further. Don’t go for just the facts, get the stories that go along with things, too.

Dollarhide’s Step 1 is titled Family Interviews. Excellent. I agree.

He leads the reader through some strategies to capture facts about your family’s past: Look through address books, holiday cards from relatives. Contact any and all by whatever means possible “in person, by telephone, or e-mail.” (p. 9).

He continues:

Compare your memories with the memories of your brothers, sisters, parents, grandparentss or any other living relatives. You may discover that others in your immediate family have different stories to tell.


Memories memories memories. Of the living, of those who surround you.

He further goes on to talk of interview questions, which taken as a whole, are ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 19, 2010 in • GenealogyInterviewing
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Tonight on HBO - Studs Terkel: Listening to America

Studs Terkel Just got word there’ll be a documentary tribute to Studs Terkel, 1 day before what would have been his 98th birthday. The documentary by Eric Simonson looks at the man behind the oral histories of everyday people.

“What he did for a living is hard to describe to somebody who doesn’t know his work,” says Simonson, who spent numerous hours with his subject at Terkel’s North Side home—a pack rat’s paradise by the lake. ” ‘He’s an oral historian.’ Well, what does that mean? ‘And he’s a radio man.’ Well, so what? What does that mean? It’s really the force of Studs’ personality that makes him who he was, so I was trying to sift through all this footage to find the most quintessential looks at Studs Terkel and who he was and why it is he meant so much to many people.”

Terkel appears in it (his last interview for the film was recorded six months before his death in October, 2008). The Chicago Sun ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 15, 2010 in • InterviewingOral HistoriansOral history in the news
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Tartan Thoughts: So, there was, like, this big Genealogy shindig in Salt Lake City recently, and…

image So I hear there was this great gathering of genealogists in Salt Lake City recently, at an event that goes by the acronym NGS. Many people attended, and blogged about it. I read a few of the roundups, but one in particular caught my eye – the Ancestry Insider post that included a link to a movie. About family with a clan. And a tartan. I’ll embed it here, with color commentary.

About the Clan McCloud. So you know, McCloud is an anglicization (americanization) of the spelling of the name McLeod or MacLeod.

Oh, that photo at the top of this post? Those are my parents and Dad is wearing what we call the Loud MacLeod tartan—also known as the bumblebee tartan. I can’t say as that tartan goes well against my particular skin tones. I’ve written about my family’s erstwhile and dubious MacLeod connections in my story Not from the Isle of the Lewes. The blood is fake and mythical, but our experience meeting Chief John MacLeod of MacLeod was very real.  Alas, most of my good photos of that trip are all slide transparencies. There is much to scan, and I’ve not even ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 14, 2010 in • GenealogyPersonal History
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I’m one in a hundred! ( Top 100 Genealogy Site recognition) 100 badge WooHoo! I’m proud to say that Family Oral History Using Digital Tools has been recognized in the Top 100 Genealogy Sites.

From the blog post/announcement of this distinction:

We wanted to identify and give recognition to websites which offered high-quality content, were innovative in topic or design, and which were frequently updated with new content. We also put some emphasis on finding hidden gems in the community, and bringing sites to attention which currently have relatively small audiences. As such, there are a number of lesser-known sites included, and a few more prominent sites unmentioned for the same reason.

Here’s the entire list of the 100 sites. To stay sane, I think I’ll be clicking a few a day over the next several (or several-several) days.

Congratulations to all the others, and ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 13, 2010 in • Cool WebsiteGenealogyPersonal
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“It was like I had opened up a history book and was able to ask it questions”

Louise Bibby Hocking, of It's My Life DVDs Grandpa’s 94-year old cousin. His name’s Keith. That’s who Louise Bibby Hocking of It’s my Life DVDs went to interview. She was Late. Lost. Flustered. But she finally arrived, and then it all changed. Her account of her day, what she discovered, and what it was like describes exactly why I am so jazzed about interviewing family members.

Let me give you a little more from her story, with the quote that makes up the title of this post:

But eventually I got to asking him about his grandfather, who he knew very well – my great great grandfather. As Keith told me about the “jolly” fellow who was my great great grandfather, and then spoke of his great uncles, I was suddenly hit by an amazing feeling – it was like I had opened up a history book and was able to ask it questions.

She goes through all the high points. Of the get around to it to make that call.

Being in her own head while en route. Getting lost. Having misgivings. Regrouping. (deep breaths!)

Arriving. And then the magic when the stories unfold. Comparing ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 06, 2010 in • InterviewingPersonal History
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Wordless Wednesday, 5 years after 05/05/05 Family Reunion Edition

¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

Click the big wide photo to enlarge.
Photo taken by camera timer. But it was my camera.

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 05, 2010 in • Personal HistoryPhotographs
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A shoebox of photos

(This is in memory of Steve, and is for Debbi) His sister looked through the shoebox of photos. “Wow! I’ve never seen these before!” Sister and Mom sat in chairs on the grass in the backyard. I sat in one of the group of chairs encircling the metal firepit. Together they paged through snapshots. His Mom held slides up to the afternoon sun.

“Dad’s hobby was photography,” Sister said. “Did you see this one? the one where he’s standing in front of that car? What kind of car is that?”

My boyfriend looks, and after a thoughtful pause, he says, “Cadillac.”

It’s a Cadillac with a long front end, maybe late 30s, early 40s. A car that you’d see at those classic car shows. The kind of car you’d wave to if you saw it barrelling along the freeway. The kind of car that brings a smile to your face in the year 2010.

“He’s always posed in front of cars,” Sister says. She and Mom look at the snapshots of toddlers in a tall tile bath. “Who is that with Steve?”

Mom looks, and says a name.

(Alas, I forgot the name. This is not my ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 03, 2010 in • MemorabiliaPhotographs
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