Thursday, March 23, 2017

It's Still True—
The Vital Importance of Oral Interviews

I'm on the road again. Near relatives, of course. So naturally, I have the opportunity to interview these folks—but did I think of that when I first started planning my trip? Of course not. Somehow, in my mind, the concept of genealogical research had morphed from pen on paper and face-to-face inquiry to online pursuits.

I suspect your experience might have become the same. After all, there is so much that can be accomplished online in our quest to document the lives of our forebears. Digitized documents bring the array of necessary paperwork right to our desks, thanks to some well-placed taps on the computer keyboard by our little fingertips. Who moans about snail mail delays anymore?

The invisible corollary that may have suffered in the demise of old fashioned research legwork might be the face to face interview. Since we can obtain so much from virtual expeditions, why leave the comfort of our armchair to actually go visit those relatives we haven't seen in months, er, years?

So here I am in Florida, home of relatives on three sides of our collective families. How can I not take this opportunity? But I find my interviewing skills somewhat rusty. And, in odd contrast, I also find those interviewing skills supercharged by having my genealogical notes right at hand, accessible for any questions with the click of a mouse or a tap on my iPad.

Meeting with my mother's cousin—the baby of her generation and one of the few remaining in that cohort—she pulled out a piece of paper to discuss the fine points of our McClellan line, needing a place to sketch out the pedigree. As she spoke, I double checked her information against what I had already entered in my records.

I was fortunate that this cousin was daughter of a man who, though now long gone, had left extensive research notes, himself. What a treasure! What an opportunity to carry on from where his work left off.

Another plus was the warnings this cousin was able to give. Apparently, as sometimes happens, a distant relative had circulated some erroneous information on this tree, and my visitor was concerned that I steer clear of this disinformation. I'm so glad for the heads up—something that couldn't be provided except by those who have already worked on their family history.

The line we two share happens to be the McClellan line I've recently been discussing. I'm pursuing the political involvement of members of this family, down through the generations, and had been keen on plying this cousin with questions. She personally remembered the closer generations of this family and was able to verify what I had stumbled upon, online. While McClellan isn't exactly a Smith kind of surname, there are quite a few out there with this name. If you don't think so, just google "George McClellan" and see how far afield your search can bring you. A middle initial and dates for lifespan can make all the difference in the world.

Today, I'll be headed off in another direction: to visit a cousin on my father's side. He, too, will have the benefit of a family member who has delved into genealogical research, but in this case, it is someone younger than both of us—his daughter. While I can share notes with her on what she has discovered, I'll save that for another trip. For today's visit, it's most vital that I ply my cousin with questions about his personal memories of all the family members on my father's side of the family.

The unique perspective that this cousin can provide is his personal experience with many of the relatives no longer with us—people he knew as a child and young adult, whom I never had the opportunity to meet, let alone get to know. This line, if you recall, descends from an immigrant who arrived in New York harbor and soon after changed his name, hoping to obliterate any trace of his former self—whatever that past might have entailed.

When the topic of oral interviews is brought up, many researchers assume that signals an initial interview—the kind where the older generation faces a barrage of questions about names, dates, and locations suitable to include as a new researcher begins a pedigree chart. That process, in my case, has long been completed, thus don't expect a helpful how-to list for launching your own interview process.

Despite having moved far beyond those initial research steps, I still find it valuable to engage in oral interviews. Only in my case, I'm looking to verify details found online and stitch together the facts behind unusual discoveries that don't make sense on paper.

I have another reason for taking this second opportunity for oral interviews. As my mother's cousin reminded me yesterday, she and her brother are among the last of that generation. If any of their memories are to be preserved for future generations, now is the time.

The cousin I am going to visit today had once commented about our grandparents to me, "If only I had thought to ask those questions when they were still around." So true. I've heard numerous people echo that same sentiment—and I'm not even related to them! We all lose when we, in our young lives, are too busy with our own commitments to reach out and preserve the treasures soon to slip away.

When I teach beginners how to launch their genealogical pursuits, of course I include that stock line of instruction—to interview family members to help these beginners fill in the lines on their pedigree charts. Usually, though, most of the people taking my classes are soon-to-be or recently retired. A fair number of them have already lost their parents; grandparents are out of the question.

Does this mean I shouldn't offer that advice? Of course not. Though people such as those in my classes may not have the luxury of sitting down to a delightful discussion with their grandparents, they can still set aside time to visit with other relatives. While younger aunts and uncles are still available, that's an avenue. Reaching out to the extended family—such as my visit with my mother's cousin the other day—is an option. Keep in mind that, at least in some families, wide age differences may yield possibilities. For instance, in my family, my oldest sibling is twenty years older than I am; that's two decades of family memories I was unable to be part of, but which I can gather via discussions with those who were there.

Every moment that slips by pulls with it the chance to recapture memories of your family's experiences. But there is no need to give up the pursuit just because your parents are no longer with you. Until you are the oldest one remaining, the last one left in your generation, keep plugging away with questions about family memories. Even if all you are left with is your sister or brother who is a year or two younger than you, keep asking questions; some people remember events differently than the others who went through the "same" experience.

No matter how big your family tree has become, or how many documents you can retrieve thanks to your online subscriptions, you simply cannot rely solely on your online research prowess. While people may err in memories of dates or middle names of second cousins twice removed, what they do remember are the shared experiences with other family members—the stories which yield the flavor of just what those ancestors were once like. This is the only way to complete the telling of your family's story—all the rest, to a novice audience, becomes fodder for that "my eyes glaze over" reception. 



  1. Yes, yes! Oral interviews are diamonds! Very valuable. You can have questions planned but there are always nice surprises. The person you interview may also have family documents of photographs.

    1. You sound like you've encountered your fair share of interview treasures, Colleen. It's the surprises that make those visits the gems that they are.

  2. I only have 1 aunt who is still alive. She will be 96 next month and she has forgotten so much. Cousins are the next best thing, especially if they lived around the family while growing up. My father moved us to California so my recollections are few and far between.

    1. Debby, how wonderful that your aunt is still with you, after 96 years! But don't write off any interview possibilities with her. She may surprise you with a moment of lucidity, if you are prepared with patience and some deft interviewing skills. The main thing is to just relax and gently lead the conversation toward the subject you are interested in. Sometimes, the conversational approach can evoke a memory. Sometimes not, but at least you are trying. Reminiscing is the key.

      Yes, cousins are great. Of course, I have the benefit of cousins spanning an entire generation with their varied ages, but even those all of the same general age can pick up different viewpoints about the same experience, and help piece together a story more accurately.


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