Every family historian suffers from the same regret: Why didn’t I interview (insert any name) when he/she was alive? Much of genealogy is about giving a voice to our ancestors. But have you considered talking to your oldest family members while you have the opportunity? Allow them to share their stories through an interview. Now is the time to move past your regrets.

The most successful interviews are well-planned. Start by asking yourself some questions:

• Who are the oldest members of your family?
• Whom do you want to interview?
• Why are you interviewing someone?
• What are you trying to accomplish?
• What topics do you want to cover?
• What format do you want to use? Audio recording? Video recording? Traditional pad and paper?
• Will you interview the person more than once?
• Will you interview groups of people, such as siblings?
• How will you preserve the interview?

It’s ideal to interview the oldest family members first. If you are the oldest member of your family, think of this as an opportunity to “interview yourself.” Ask yourself the same questions you wish you asked relatives who have passed.

What is the appropriate terminology for an oral history interview?

The “narrator” is the person being interviewed or telling their story. The “interviewer” is the person asking the questions.

Preserving the interview for the future
There are some special considerations for every interview. Think of your final product as an artifact or heirloom. You might have already preserved your grandmother’s kimono or your great-grandfather’s shakuhachi. Maybe you have already placed old letters and photos in archival sleeves. Audio and video recordings should also be archivally preserved.

Have you considered privacy issues and permission? 
Always get written permission from the narrator to conduct the interview. Make sure you specify what you may or may not share with others, and in what format.

What about sensitive topics, emotional or traumatic events, or scandals and secrets?
Every family has some skeletons. Often, family members find it healing to share these sensitive stories, but not always. Be respectful of how much your relative does or does not want to share.

Does your family member suffer from cognitive decline? 
If so, bring artifacts or photos to help spur their recollections.

Does your narrator have physical limitations?
Try to make your interview setting as accessible and comfortable as possible. Be sure that a person with auditory challenges can hear your questions. If your subject has a very soft voice, adjust the microphone, and test the audio before beginning the interview. Make sure that your subject is physically comfortable before you begin. Is there a glass of water available? Is the chair comfortable? Does the narrator prefer to have adaptive devices nearby (cane, reading glasses, etc.)?

Where will you conduct the interview? 
Try to find a quiet place free from distractions (lawnmowers, barking dogs, children, kitchen appliances). Place a note on your door asking visitors to refrain from knocking or ringing the doorbell. Inside is always better than outside. Consider sending visitors or members of the household out for a walk while you conduct the interview.

Make sure that no one is using any noisy appliances (disposal, vacuum, blender, hair dryer).

Are you familiar with your tech tools? 
Know your tech tools before you begin the interview and practice, practice, practice. Will you use your iPhone to record the interview? A digital tape recorder? A video recorder? Do you need batteries? Power cords? A new external microphone? A tripod? If your narrator lives at a distance, consider recording the interview via Zoom, Google Meet or FaceTime. Did I mention the need to practice with your equipment? Make sure that your audio device is adequate for the interview. For video recordings, make sure your narrator is either facing a window or has a lamp/ring light in front of them. Light from the back will darken the face.

Are your questions prepared? 
It’s a good idea to prepare a list of questions. This means you likely will need to do some research ahead of the interview. Your questions might be about a specific time (childhood? incarceration?), a specific place (childhood home?), or an event (wedding? or the death of a loved one?). If you need suggestions for questions to ask, try googling “questions to ask in an oral history interview.” You might also consider ordering the 12-page digital pamphlet, “The Ultimate Family History Interview Primer” by Nicka Smith (WhoIsNickaSmith.com).

Did you push the record button? 
It’s helpful to make a to-do list for the interview. This includes pushing the record button. That sounds obvious, but you might be surprised to know that interviewers often forget to do this. Don’t be that person. You also might consider showing a typed title page at the beginning of the recording with the name of the narrator, the name of the interviewer, the date and the location.

Once you hit “record,” it’s OK to have a brief pause. This gives you a little bit of wiggle room for editing purposes. As the interviewer, try to be flexible with the direction of the interview. Your relative may stray from your questions and that’s OK. Be sure to listen more and talk less. A bit of silence is OK. Pauses allow you to consider the next questions. They also allow the narrator to think, ponder their memories and reflect.

How long is too long?
Keep an eye on the clock. Ninety minutes is a good amount of time to spend interviewing your family member. If you think you need more time, consider doing multiple interviews. You could also consider interviewing people individually, and later, in a group (such as with siblings).

Once you are finished, transcribe the interview, create a label for the recording, and determine where you will store the original.

Now, go out and interview your family members while you can!

The American Archivist. “Zoom for Oral History Projects. 19 March 2021.

Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet: Oral History and Interviews

Densho: “How do I conduct my oral history interview?”
and Webinar/Handout “Recording Oral Histories.”

Who Is Nicka Smith? Interview Primer

Jewish Gen. Oral History Interview, Questions, and Topics. https://www.jewishgen.org/infofiles/Quest.html’gclid=Cj0KCQiApb2bBhDYARIsAChHC9vkwS8TI6pwk7MnzEV_bHGjm6HctMgCsB2ultjWLlFb1dcpyl1qtfgaAsuDEALw_wcB

Okazaki, Linda. “Finding Your Nikkei Roots: Once Upon a Time, Preserve Your Family History Through Storytelling.” Nichi Bei, 1 January 2020. https://www.nichibei.org/2020/01/finding-your-nikkei-roots-once-upon-a-time-preserve-your-family-history-through-storytelling

Oral History Association

Smithsonian Institution Archives. “How to Do Oral History.” https://siarchives.si.edu/history/how-do-oral-history 

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, send an e-mail to LindasOrchard@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily of the Nichi Bei News.

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