The art and technique of eliciting stories from others

Genealogy Gems Podcast meets Family Oral History (at Jamboree)

Here's a photo from last year - the 2009 Jamboree, geneabloggers dinner. I sat next to Lacey Cooke and Lisa Louise Cooke, and sometime during that evening, nabbed this foto.) I was interviewed for the Genealogy Gems podcast back in June, at the SCGS Jamboree in Burbank. Lisa Louise Cooke, podcast host and Chief Gemologist, released Episode #97, and it features our discussion. (Our interview happens about 24 minutes into the podcast.)

Thank you, Lisa, for interviewing me. Since Lisa and I spoke not long after I’d given two presentations (interviewing family/all about digital audio recording equipment), I happened to have all kinds of recording equipment with me, so I offered to also record the interview using my kit (scroll down for photo of my “recording studio in an Otter Box”—I also wrote a post to I describe how I bought it—it’s a few years old, and Things Have Changed Since Then.)

Oh, and also—click all photos to enlarge.

Show notes and Equipment Updates

Genealogy Gems booth at Southern California Genealogical Society's Jamboree in Burbank, CA  (foto is Lisa Louise Cooke's) Left: Lacey Cooke, Right: Lisa Louise Cooke When we recorded the interview (in early June), I recommended the Zoom Handy H2 (and compared it with the Marantz PMD620).

Since then, Zoom ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on October 06, 2010 in • GenealogyInterviewing
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It’s Deborah Tannen Day - or how family communication can go weird

Deborah Tannen, foto by Susanne van der Kleij. Why is this day Deborah Tannen day? According to Wikipedia, it’s her birthday. Which is the same as my birthday. Yippee! Tannen is the author of the books You Just Don’t Understand and Talking from 9 to 5 – about the style of discourse. It’s a discipline called socio-linguistics. Or, how language shapes interactions between people. In addition to talking about how language between the sexes is sometimes a cross-cultural communication, and about how the language of work affects who does what and who gets the credit, Tannen also talks of communication within families.

In her book, I Only Say This Because I Love You Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You’re All Adults, Tannen gets into the whys and wherefores of communication mixups and cross-signals within families. I’m so glad to have her input on this, because as one individual with one family, I feel very un-credible saying, “Wanna interview family? Do this. Worked for me!” Having her research on conversations within families is very helpful—it helps get me around some of the YMMV - your mileage may vary - circumstances.

Connection vs Control

In my Why not ask Why? post, I touched on her tension between connection and control—everyone wants to be connected, and everyone ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on June 07, 2010 in • Interviewing
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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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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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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 May 20, 2010 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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“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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Family heirlooms and their stories

image Here’s my postscript to this brief article: Make records of family heirlooms. In response to a reader question about what kind of info to write down about family heirlooms,’s Sheila Burns says yes, write it down - both the object’s description, and additional details about its use in the family. [via GenWeekly] Don’t just write it, record it! Heirlooms are wonderful story triggers for family interviews. If you’re stuck for a starting place, or a way to get more stories from family members, ask questions about objects and heirlooms.

Each of the questions Burns poses about the object are wonderful triggers for a recorded interview.

Identify, photograph and maintain records of your treasures. Describe the history and condition of each object. Who owned it? Who made, purchased or used the object. Where did the person live? How was the item used? What did the item mean to your family?

Good interviews use lots of open-ended questions, the kind that lead to telling a story, rather than a simple “yes” or “no.” Each of these question starts with those wonderful words that elicit stories—Who? Where? How? What?

I can almost hear the story as it unwinds from one of those questions.

Burns talks about taking the story ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on April 07, 2010 in • InterviewingMemorabilia
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How can I help you with your resolutions for 2010?

Happy 2010 to you. My biggest resolution is to help you with your New Year’s resolutions, especially if yours take the form of saying “I really ought to talk to my…” Mom or Dad or Grandpa or Grandma or Aunt or Uncle or family friend. And record that conversation. And then process it with your computer. And then archive it somehow.

In 2010, I wish to to devote more time and effort to this site than I did the last year, and here’s a toast to the posts, articles, reviews and videos that will appear here this year. I’m leery of getting too specific and too ambitious. (Been there, done that.) What can I write about that will help you?

On my own work with my own family oral histories, I have recordings of my dad and uncle—both veterans—that I want to finish processing and submit to the Veterans History Project.

I’ve got some family photos that I scanned. Or rather began scanning—there are so many more. I want to put them together in a MemoryMiner photo library to distribute to all the cousins (I’ve talked of this ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on January 01, 2010 in • Do it: Learn HowDo it: YourselfInterviewingPersonal
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Essential Tips for Interviewing family: Thou shalt not interrupt

The Interviewing Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Interrupt Do you want to interview parents or grandparents over the holidays? Here are some tips from Jens Lund – whom I met at the Oral History Association conference in Louisville this fall. As I see it, the problem for the family member interviewer is lack of experience conducting interviews. What one piece of advice would Lund, an experienced folklorist, give to the first time interviewer?

Jens (pronounced yens) Lund, from Washington state, pioneered aspects of creating the driving audio tour. Put in a cassette (this was a while ago, people) at a certain location on a road, drive and play. The tape tells you about what you’re seeing, with significant history and interviews with people from the area. There may be music from local people as well.

Here’s what he had to say:

Don’t interrupt. Give the person enough time. Don’t cut them off. Don’t hurry through your set of questions. Give a moment—a few breaths—at the end of what they say. They may be breathing or pausing before continuing with their story.

I asked him for one piece of advice. I got three good answers. ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on December 19, 2009 in • Interviewing
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Photography changes what we remember

This 3.5 minute video (direct YouTube link; embedded below) is an interview with Hugh Talman, a photographer with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. He muses on his act of photographing the aftermath of Katrina. The curator who was planning to visit the area asked him, “What would you photograph?” His reply: “you’d photograph the evidence of the power of Katrina. I don’t style myself as photojournalist, but it turned into having photojournalistic aspects to it.” The video shows some of his photos. Most striking: photographs of an object where it was found (in its full post-Katrina context), versus the object photographed the way Talman normally works with objects, shot in the sanitized setting of a photo studio. What a contrast.

Before I watched the video (and saw just its name—“changes what we remember”), I thought, “Oh, this might relate to photos and memories and how to use photos to nudge or direct memories.” Not so pointed as that. It’s more that a collection of photographs is a kind of memory artifact of how it was. The contrast between an object’s plain (studio) background versus that object in its environment so powerfully conveys the power of Katrina. The two photos of the same object may as well be two different objects. I’m inspired to hunt more carefully when I look at old photographs for objects and their contexts, and the clues they might provide about a person or a time. I’m thinking ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 10, 2009 in • HistoryInterviewingPhotographs
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Recording Memories before They Slip Away Completely

For Better or For Worse, 8/3/2008 Mementos Help preserve memories. From the Mayo Clinic’s suggestions for helping people with Alzheimer’s cope with the disease. “Alzheimer’s steals away memories, but tangible mementos can help people remember their past.” [via Storycatching, by Pat McNees]

This is a counterpoint to the stance I took during the Q&A article, “I want to interview my parents. Does that mean I think they’re at death’s door?” In the Q&A, I assumed from the questioner’s age that his parents were in good health. But there are those whose parents are not in good heath, and Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia come and steal away what this article calls the tapestry woven from the memories of events in a person’s life.

Alzheimer’s disease gradually robs people of the memories that make up their tapestries. You can help mend these holes by creating a tangible repository of memories — in a scrapbook, videotape or audiotape.

In addition to writing memories in ...Read More

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on February 13, 2009 in • InterviewingPersonal History
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LIFE magazine photo archive now searchable on Google

LIFE photo archive hosted on the web by Google. Photos go back to the 1860s, and sketches & etchings go back to the 1750s. Wow! Here’s the Google blog post about it. There goes the afternoon. I’ve already found an interesting railroad set. There goes the afternoon! [via Lifehacker]

Not only is this cool, but it’s a good thing to poke through if you’re going to sit down and interview someone. It’s better to get some research in about the time and place where your interviewee lived. What was it like in 1950s? What about such-n-such events? Spending time in collections such as this helps to take you, the questioner, there, and ask better questions of your interviewee.. I’ve been thinking about online repositories of supporting information

P.S. Southern Pacific Rail Road. Dispatcher, perhaps? That was my grandfather’s job and employer

Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on November 18, 2008 in • HistoryInterviewingPhotographs
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