Many people who are just starting out with their family history research will start with the basics such as performing an LDS family search online or in a family history library and talking to their immediate relatives. It is the talking to the relatives aspect of family research that we will be covering in this article, when you are speaking to a relative in the interest of gaining information about your ancestors you are effectively conducting an oral interview. These oral interviews can offer up some of the best details that you will need when it comes to performing your LDS family search and recording your family tree in hopes to discover your ancestors.
You may be under the impression that all oral interviews that you conduct for family research are identical, it’s simply a case of asking questions such as who, what, why, where and when. This is not the case and more thought needs to be put into how you approach an oral interview particularly if you are researching ancestors that may have come from an ethnic group such as African American, when conducting an oral interview like this you will need to make sure that you are familiar with the cultural taboos and norms of that particular group in order to ensure your interview is effective.
When it comes to interviewing members of the African American community you will be dealing with three main groups including the elderly from the educated part of the population, elderly from the rural population and the non- elderly.
Members of the elderly rural population that were before the 1940’s would have grown up with the belief that children are to be seen but never heard. This particular group of the population will not discuss the intimate details of any relationships with anyone outside of their own age group; this group come from a time where adults would have been treated with respect. For this reason you as the interviewer will need to be aware of these cultural differences so that you can perform an effective interview. You will need to establish a relationship with members of this population prior to conducting your interview and have already approached the person who you wish to interview weeks or months in advance to gain their trust.
Before it gets to actually performing the interview you can contact then via telephone, you must ensure you refer to the person that you are interviewing with the upmost respect and address them as Mr, Miss, Mrs or MS respectively. Start your conversation off by asking very brief questions about their family members and their life in general. When you feel like your conversations are getting a bit longer every time that you talk to them then you may begin to ask the more specific questions regarding their family history.
Once you have obtained a connection with the person with which you wish to interview you will want to start performing some general genealogical research regarding their family history. This could include and LDS family search of their name, checking census records and gathering other documents. Acquiring a copy of the marriage license of the parents of your interviewee may impress them and show that you are serious in your research efforts and will make them much more open to in depth family questions during your interview.
Next you will want to arrange an appointment with the person you wish to interview so that you can begin, you should by this time already know exactly what equipment you will need to perform the interview. I personally find that when I am interviewing the elderly members of the population then a smaller tape recorder works the best and that you should avoid camcorders as this generation of people find them very distracting and they may feel like they start to panic about saying something wrong in front of the camera. All of these things could affect the effectiveness of your interview so you should stick to audio recording equipment only when dealing with the elderly.
Upon arriving for your interview you may find that your interviewee is more open if you bring them a gift, perhaps a small plant or something small which shows your appreciation to them for allowing you to perform this interview. From the very start you should have a good feel for how the interviewee thinks of you, particularly with African Americans from the south. If they invite you to the table in the kitchen then you are being regarded as family, the living room is where guests are taken but the kitchen is generally reserved for conversations with family. Another good idea is to make sure that you stay in touch with your interviewee after you have finished your interview. Send them a birthday card or anniversary card on these dates and this will help you to forge a more lasting relationship, you never know when you may need to speak to them again during your research.
Just like the rural elderly, the educated elderly population also have their own cultural norms. They see education as an accomplishment and those that hold professional titles will want to be addressed by them, for example Dr or M.D.S. You will not need to build up a relationship prior to your interview with this particular group; many of them are too busy for telephone conversations. One or two calls prior to arrange your interview should be sufficient; however it is vital that you perform some preliminary research on their family before you arrive for your interview. This group of the community hold professionalism in high regard so if you turn up ill prepared for the interviews then do not be surprised if the quality of information that you get from your interviewee is more limited. After the interview is over it is considered polite to send them a thank you card.
Finally the non-elderly population of the African American community are much less likely to have any cultural norms and will be open to almost any and all questions. They do not feel the need to be addressed in a formal manner. This group of the community are the easiest to interview, however you should still get your initial research done prior to the interview to make it as effective as you can.
As you can see not every oral interview that you perform during your research is identical, you will need to take into consideration each individuals background and lifestyle in order to get the most out of your interviews and the best possible information to further your research.