Genealogy Road Trip Tip 15: Oral history interviews

Tip 15: Oral history interviews. Part of “Genealogy Road Trip Tips: Take Your Loved Ones With You” — 30 posts in 30 days for NaBloPoMo 2016.

When I first began seriously researching my family, I was focused on amassing documents — whatever I could lay my hands on at repositories I visited. What a thrill to have my files fill up with all sorts of written information about my ancestors!

Rose Curcio (1992). Photo by Molly Charboneau
August 1992: My great grandaunt Rose Curcio at age 95. My mom and I interviewed Aunt Rosie on a genealogy road trip. She filled in details on our Italian immigrant ancestors that helped us identify their towns of origin and trace their early years in the U.S. Photo by Molly Charboneau

However, the voices of living ancestors and collateral relatives are another important source of family information.

Their stories give meaning to the documentary evidence you find — and what better time to record those voices than on a Genealogy Road Trip.

Online sources of interview questions

There are many fine examples online of questions to ask during an oral history interview. Among others, Family Search wiki Creating Oral Histories offers excellent tips, and Family Tree Magazine has published the helpful article 13 Tips for Oral History Interviewing. So I will not repeat any of that sage advice here.

The tips in this blog post will focus on how to work a successful oral history interview into a genealogy road trip with a travel partner.

Second travel partner meeting. At this point, you have probably already had a travel partner meeting where you each laid out your hopes and expectations for the trip. Now’s the time to have a second meeting to discuss the interview — who will you be visiting, how will it go, will you both be there during the interview (perhaps your partner operating the recording device while you ask questions), and anything else that seems important. You want your interviewee — who may be elderly — to feel comfortable with your visit, so work out all the details with your travel partner before you get there.

Make your interviewee feel comfortable. When my mom and I interviewed my great grandaunt Rose Curcio — a younger sibling of my great grandmother Mamie (Curcio) Laurence — we spent some time visiting with her first. We brought flowers and my mom led the conversation, since she knew Aunt Rosie the best. Then, after obtaining permission to ask her about the family’s history, Mom turned on the recorder and simply continued the conversation, asking questions as she went — questions we had gone over and written down during our second travel partner meeting.

Be low-key about your recording device. Younger generations are totally comfortable with hand-held devices for recording, shooting video, taking selfies and the like. But older relatives may be more wary — as I learned when interviewing my godmother, a college classmate of my mom’s. A gifted story teller, she spent hours conversing with me and my travel partner when we visited her home — but froze up completely when I turned on the digital recorder and began asking specific questions. So we started over — and the interview went much better after I introduced questions as part of the conversation and set the small recorder off to the side on the kitchen counter.

Are there relatives you would like to interview on a genealogy road trip? Have you perfected techniques for a successful, onsite oral history interview that you want to share? Let us know in the comment section.

And remember: the records will always be there, but your ancestors and relatives will not, so capture those family stories now so you can share them with future generations. Trust me, your elderly relatives will be thrilled by your interest in their history!

Up next: Research in local repositories. Please stop back.

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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