How does genealogical research differ from interviewing family?

Somewhat predictable VS Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV) Back in June, at Jamboree in Burbank, I spoke to four people about their experience recording interviews with family members. Next week I will start publishing a series of posts where you get to hear (or, read) from them directly.

Jamboree, by the way, is the Southern California Genealogy Society Jamboree – the annual June conference in the greater Los Angeles area. It’s well-attended by genealogy bloggers.

The four people:

(Listed in the order I interviewed them)

But first, imagine the following scenario.

For a given type of document, there's a general procedure to follow in order to get your hands on the document. You decide to contact the government agency that can give you some vital records for Great Great Great Grandma, which are stored at the Grove County Records. You want her birth certificate and marriage certificate.

The usual procedure for that is to write a request for the information. Maybe they have a PDF form online that you can fill out and print. Or maybe you just write Great Great Great Grandma’s name and whatever other information you have. Along with the request, you write a check to cover the processing fee and mail your request to the Grove County Records Department.

And then you wait.

One day, an envelope with Grove County Records Department return address appears in your mail.

Excited, you tear it open. You are moments away from looking at Great Great Great Grandma’s birth and marriage certificates.

You pull out the contents. Your request form is there with a big red stamp.


There’s a handwritten note scrawled at the bottom. It says, “Grove County Records Department just does not feel like providing you with that information.”

Oh, and of all things, they kept the check.

“No way!” you exclaim. “How can that be?! This is a records department of a government entity; they all more or less follow the same kind of procedure. Providing records to people is one of the things they’re supposed to do. They should do this. And they say they don’t feel like it?!? What is up with that? Are they nuts?”

In this scenario, I’ve deliberately mis-matched a request for historical information and a response.

The request: A genealogical vital records request.

The response: A family member’s refusal to record an interview with you.

Got that? The genealogy request receives a response that might happen in an oral history setting. 

The scenario highlights the difference between research for genealogical records and the act of recording family interviews.

Genealogy is more or less predictable

Genealogy is a practice of record-seeking and record keeping. The hunt for records follows a more-or-less predictable path.

A sample flowchart for finding a birth certificate for the state of California. It's predictable. All California birth certificates work more or less the same way.

There are different document types, and different locations to find them. For each type of document, though, the method you follow to get your hands on the document is predictable and orderly.

The hunt is for the record. The most common types of records are vital records (births, marriages, deaths), court records, property records, records in newspapers, census records, church or synagogue or mosque records, city directories, military pension records, immigration and travel records, cemetery gravestones. The genealogist is on a hunt for records.

(That’s not to say that genealogy research is unaffected by individual circumstance. Variations in name spelling may turn a straightforward search into a daunting challenge. Or it may be that your ancestor’s Grove County Records Department may have burned up in the horrible Grove Downtown Fire of 1926. But an individual fire that destroyed all the records does not change the general method by which you obtain vital records from most County Records Departments.)

Approaching Family Members for an interview: Your Mileage May Vary

A family interview, where one member asks another member to sit down and tell stories, is filled with unpredictable circumstances. Caprice. A certain personality type with certain inclinations. Hidden motivations. Maybe the person will agree to talk to you, and maybe they won’t. It is “Your mileage may vary” writ large.

The interview process is different.

Here’s my challenge: On this site, I write about “here’s how to do this extremely satisfying process.” But I am one person with one family. I can write about equipment and how to come up with good questions. But for that initial step to sit down and interview someone, how is it possible for me to move from saying “This is what it’s like to talk with my mother” to “What it is like to interview any mother” ?

We’re all different. My mother likes to talk and share. She has no problem sitting with a recorder and taking part in an interview. Not every mother is like my mother, though.

I want to learn from other people’s experiences. What’s it like when you’ve got a reluctant family member? What is it like if someone refuses to be interviewed? What other struggles do people have? What triumphs? What other advice can I give for family situations that differ from my own family? 

Is the process of getting your relative to agree to be interviewed the same? Not exactly. Your Mileage May Vary

That brings us to the experiences of four genealogists at Jamboree.

Each one interviewed family members. Some interviewees were reticent and difficult, some were willing and open. You’ll find different approaches to the question, “how do I get the person to agree to be interviewed?” You’ll find surprising perceptions that seem (appear but really do not) get in the way of the interview. You’ll also learn how they worked around the reaction “OMG! There’s, you know, RECORDING EQUIPMENT, yikes!” You’ll find out what they did with their interviews afterwards, and get some fantastic ideas.

What about you?

In the comments, feel free to describe your own experiences.

How did it go? What did you talk about? Difficulties in getting family members to talk while recording the conversation? If so, what are the issues that make the process objectionable for your relative? Were there any problems or fiascos? Technical glitches? What have you learned from it? Has your relationship with the interviewee changed as a result of the recording?

The first interview, with Kim von Aspern-Parker (Part 1) (Part 2), will begin the series early next week.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on November 04, 2011 in • GenealogyInterviewing
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