Friday, July 30, 2010

Family History Interviews

I have listened to and transcribed two sets of family history interviews.  There is the recording my maternal grandfather, Martin Deutsch, his brother, Ted Deutsch, and sister, Berta Deutsch Freed put together in 1977.  My grandfather took on the role of interviewer, though he actively participated in the discussion.  There is also the interviews of my paternal grandmother and grandfather conducted by a professional personal historian in 1987.

I think I've noticed things I like about each, and problems with each, and perhaps my reflection on these tapes might help someone considering interviewing their own family members make a decision.

1) My maternal grandfather, and his siblings, each had their own recollections of the events.  As they talked, they helped each other bring up old memories.  Sometimes their memories were opposed to one another.  I was happy to see my great uncle, Ted, remained firm in his recollections, when my grandfather questioned them.  Ted was the older, and more likely to remember things correctly.  And the documents that have been found have supported Ted's memories.

However, this could have gone awry.  My grandfather's faulty recollections could have persuaded his older brother to question his.  This is one reason personal historians use to explain to potential clients that hiring someone is actually better than doing it yourself.  In his book, Annie's Ghosts, reporter Steve Luxenberg uses the legal phrase, 'leading the witness.'

2) The personal historian who interviewed both of my paternal grandparents, grew up in St. Louis as well, in the same general area.  While a few years younger, her shared experiences helped her ask the right questions to spur their memories.  She knew which parks they were likely to have picnicked in.  She knew street names and streetcar lines. 

I've seen advertisements online where you can hire someone to interview a relative by phone.  If there is no one in your community to hire, I think I might recommend doing it yourself, as long as you are capable of remaining neutral enough to avoid prejudicing the answers.  Someone who doesn't know the community, no matter how much experience they have, aren't going to do as good of a job. 

Similarly...if you grew up half way across the country from your grandparents, and only occasionally visited, you might not be as good an interviewer as someone in their hometown, even if you have some experience.

3) During the interview process, don't interrupt a story with a question.  Write your question down, and ask the interviewee when they are finished.  I cringed several times when my grandfather interrupted a story his brother was telling, and sidetracked the conversation.

4) Take notes during the interview.  Listening to the tapes, it's clear the personal historian took excellent notes while interviewing my grandparents.  She was able to keep family relationships straight, so when my grandparents mentioned a name later on, she knew who they were.

5) Go chronological.  It provides order to the interview, and helps both interviewer and interviewee keep straight what happened when.

6) Unless you plan on doing a series of interviews, cover the interviewees life up to that point.  Don't decide just to interview them on their childhood.  I am certainly not ungrateful for the information contained on the tapes my maternal grandfather and  his siblings made.  I love what I learned.  But their focus on their childhood in Transylvania, and the first few years in Chicago was somewhat frustrating, as they were battling their dissipating memories.  All three of them could have spoken at great length on their young adulthoods with greater certainty.

They probably thought their childhood in a foreign country was the 'most interesting' part of their lives to pass on to posterity, and perhaps, to a non-family member it might be.  But 'most' isn't equivalent to 'only.'

Click on Amanuensis Monday Index at the top of the page to find links to the transcriptions of all three interviews.

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