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Getting Started (β)

Developing a Sense of Urgency

     A project like this always seems to be in the "when I get around to it" stage of advancement. You're working, raising kids, taking vacations, getting a second job, dealing with your own medical issues .... the list of time demands always seems to be growing. So, what's the big deal? Your potential interview subjects may be perfectly healthy, in their mid-70s to early 80s, with no bad habits (smoking, drinking, skydiving, ...) — can't this wait until next year? An emphatic NO!

     Once you have come to the realization that the family genealogical record will not be complete without recorded personal histories you will also come to the realization that the clock is ticking on the availability of the people with whom you most wish to have an interview. It now becomes a race against time and infirmity to obtain an interview with all of your senior relatives — parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, siblings, spouses, cousins, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, .... One interview will lead to another, and another, and another, as each interview subject in succession will make reference to some here-to-fore uninterviewed individual. Given the time constraints of conducting just a single set of interviews with a single interview subject you may find that interviewing as few as 6 or 8 individuals in a given year will consume all of the time that you have available to devote to the project ... and then some!

On other genealogy sites I have seen this question raised —

By asking a relative to be interviewed am I tacitly admitting that I believe that they'll be dead soon?

Not necessarily.

The younger the interview subject the less likely that they are to interpret your interest in "their story" as a prediction of their imminent demise.

If the subject is in their late 70s or early 80s & in good health it may just be considered a prudent move ... they are being interviewed while their mind is still sharp and their recollections clear.

If they are extremely aged and/or in poor health, well, then, yes, of course you are admitting that you think that their time is short. But, even then, they may still live another decade, or more. It's just that you'd like to hedge your bets, so to speak, and get them on the record while they would still be comfortable doing an interview.

Once the onset of dementia manifests itself, or a serious debilitating event occurs (such as a stroke or major cardiac event), the possibility of obtaining an interview that is rich in detail or that lasts for any duration starts dropping off sharply. Better to have them wondering but still get the interview than to wait until it's too late to ask the questions that you'd really like to pose.

     It really does become a race against time, what with your own time limitations & the vagarities of interview subject willingness and availability. You may spend months enticing a potential subject into sitting down for the interview; they keep saying "No" or perhaps "maybe". And then, during your busiest time of the year that person will call on a Thursday evening and say "can you come out this weekend?" In order to properly conduct an interview you might normally require several weeks of advanced planning before you go out to conduct the actual interview. It's not as if you were manning a Genealogy 911 hotline — there is no genealogy rescue van available to come to your assistance. This may be the person at the absolute top of your list of desired interview subjects ... if you put them off you may never have another opportunity to sit down with that person. So, what to do.

     The best advice I can give you on the subject is to be prepared with your recording equipment and a have a ready-to-use list of generic interview questions written up before you ever start asking around within the family. When that top-of-the-list person calls, you have effectively become the "Genealogy 911" operator for the family. Within reason, be prepared to roll and render an interview; a perfect interview session is never going to happen (no matter how hard you plan and practice), so do what you can to get an interview of any quality with that subject because it may well be your only opportunity. (especially for someone with advanced age or significant health issues)

    When I was much younger (high school age) I never would have considered doing a project such as this — I didn't see why it had to be done now. My attitude hadn't changed very much by the time I was in college, or in the Army, or into my 30s. Well, decades later, I wish that I had started back then. I've gone from being one of the squirt kid cousins at the family Christmas reunions to being one of the remaining "elders" of the family. I'm surprised that one of the current generation of "squirt kids" hasn't approached me to be interviewed for their own little corner of our extended family's genealogy project! My great-grandparents have been gone for 60 years; the last of my grandparents passed 30 years ago; all of the members of my parent's generation are also now gone. The first of my contemporaries (a cousin) has passed. I suppose that I could have it written into my will that when I die a microphone shall be set up in front of my casket and everyone will be asked to come up and speak for 15 minutes ... that's assuming that I'm one of the first to go and the majority of my cousins and their kids are still alive. (with my luck I'll make it into the Guinness Book's list of super-geezers, with the entirety of two subsequent generations also being deceased) Not exactly the way I want to kickstart the project within my own family — "I'd just die to interview you!"

     This is more than just idle musing — I've had my own health issues over the last decade and realize that the clock is ticking on me as much as it is ticking on any of my potential interview subjects.

     In general, however, you will not be overwhelmed by demands from within your family to be interviewed. It will instead be like pulling teeth ... you will be ready & able to conduct your interviews well ahead of any offers to sit down and speak. Timing will, most likely, be a minor consideration; cajoling your family members into participating in the project will be the big, initial ordeal for you and your production team (interviewer, recording engineer, research associate, etc.).

Focus, Focus, Focus
Are you mentally up to the challenge?

  • Organized

  • Detail-oriented

  • Strong planning skills

  • Persistent

  • Good sense of timing
  •      If those five attributes describe you, you are already more than half-way to getting a successful project under way; now all you need to do is study this website (and other instructive resources) to learn what you will need to do to pull off the project.

         Each of those attributes in which you are deficient will mean that you will need to work harder to overcome the problems that you will face. A single deficiency will mean harder work; having two deficiencies will make things much more difficult (although still do-able). If you are only strong in a single attribute (or weak in all of them) it is probably time to seek out help from a family member that exhibits those traits that you will need to pull off the project.

         I'm not saying that you can't do an interview project; I'm just saying that the experience for others involved in the project may not encourage them to provide other family members with positive feedback. Being weak in most (or all) of the organizational skill areas listed above is likely to lead to disasterous results; either no interview recording whatsoever «or» a situation where you are no longer on speaking terms with one or more family members.

         Bringing into the project someone who's skills complement your own should permit you to pull off a decent interview project. Don't be embarrased to ask for help; that second opinion may be just what is needed to keep things organized, on-track, properly planned with few or no 'gotchas'.

    Marshaling the necessary resources &
    identifying your first interview subject.

         As part of the process of cajoling a person into being interviewed you may find it necessary to do a little "dog and pony show" to give them an idea of how the interview process works. Being in front of a microphone and/or camera might be intimidating to some subjects — providing them with the chance to play around informally in front of a microphone or camera may ease their misgivings. Of course, being able to do "the show" will require you to have the equipment already in-hand before you approach your first (potential) interview subject.

         This is the old chicken or egg conundrum — which comes first, obtaining the equipment to do an interview that has not yet been agreed upon, or getting someone to agree to do the interview after some hands-on experience with the toys? You'll feel like a dope buying or renting some recording equipment and having everyone turn you down. You'll feel like a dope for having everyone turn you down because you didn't have any equipment to demonstrate how "easy" the project will be (for them). Realistically, if you can't rent or borrow the equipment that you need (assuming that you do not already have some or all of it) you're going to need to break down and spend a minimal amount of money to get your hands on the minimal equipment setup ... don't forget, you'll need to play with that equipment by yourself and make sure that you know how it all works before showing it off to a potential interview subject.

         As for identifying your first interview subject, sometimes the best course of action is to pursue the "easiest" person in the family — the one that agrees to almost anything. They may not be anywhere on your Top 10 list of most-desired interview subjects, but that doesn't matter. Having them enjoy the interview process and the resulting recordings will serve as a very effective marketing tool to "sell" the project to other, higher-priority family members.

         You'll still show them how it is all done, but it doesn't hurt to go through the process because once you have finished conducting your interviews with them, you can use their positive testimonials and own description of the process to other family members to get the next most likely "yes" family member to be interviewed. Through positive word of mouth within the family's social grapevine you should be able to convince a majority of the initial "no" interview candidates to at least consider being interviewed ("qualified maybes").

         So, in summary, the necessary resources would include: sound recording equipment, a sample list of the questions that would be asked, the proposed recording venue, the "honorarium" to get them to agree to being interviewed (a case of their favorite beer, a box of their favorite bakery item, a carton of their favorite chocolates, ..., whatever) and a mutually available block of time that will permit you to conduct the interview without them feeling rushed.

    Which other family members should become involved in the project
    & what limits do you place on them?

         For reasons that will be described later, conducting a family oral history recording project is best accomplished with a staff of at least two people, not just yourself soloing on all elements of the project. One person will conduct the interview, the other will manage the recording process. Of course, if you would not be comfortable doing either task the project "staff" will then grow to three individuals, with you being the "producer."

         For reasons of time, cost & free resource availability it is my opinion that you should (if at all possible) stay within the family to fill most/all of the task positions. Assuming that you will be doing this as a labour of love, the rest of the family participants would also be assumed to be participating free of charge, with the only significant expenses possibly being reimbursed at a later date. Nobody in the project should expect to make a profit from their participation. If they have that expectation they should probably be excluded from participation. The project will likely cost you several hundred dollars to complete — younger family members might choose to treat their contribution as "resume material" while older family member participants may regard it as one more "hobby" expense. Charging for the resulting recordings — perhaps soliciting advance "subscriptions" from family members for those recordings — will blow up in your face. The interview subjects will either refuse to participate «or» the cost-per-unit will be so high that nobody would consider buying a disc (would you pay $100 or more for an audio CD? Didn't think so) This is not and never should be an income-generating endeavor.

         The inept, incompetant, or inexperienced project assistant — also best excluded (especially when you are conducting your first interviews). Nothing will kill the entire project like a bad experience for your "easy" first interview subject. The family members who have displayed a habit of taking over projects (and running amok after you went to all of the effort to get it started) — best to not even mention the project to them. They'll learn about it eventually — hopefully after you get your first interview behind you.

         If all else fails (no equipment; wouldn't know how to use it if you did have it; don't like to speak into a microphone yourself; don't want to be the interviewer; ...), and assuming that you are financially well-off, you may consider engaging the services of a professional interviewer & recording engineer to conduct your recordings. They will have the experience and the equipment that you lack. What they will not have is the intimate familiarity with the interview subject that will permit them to identify a worthwhile avenue of questioning to pursue. And, of course, there is the issue of how much money should be spent to get this project off the ground. You will burn through a lot of cash very quickly when you hire someone — taking note of what we charge you'll see how you can be spending thousands of dollars very quickly (time and equipment do not come cheap — just ask plumbers, auto mechanics or air conditioner repairmen). So, keeping as much of the project within the immediate family as practicable should be a goal.

    Who needs to be accomodated & who should be ignored?

         Obviously, the interview subject is always at the head of the "accomodation" list, especially the more elderly family members. They will have special needs that should be scrupulously observed.

         Your (free) assistants would be next on the list — within reason. If you went out of town to do a recording it would be reasonable to split a motel room. If they made a mini-vacation out of the trip and got their own room because they were staying for a few more days ... maybe they should cover their entire motel stay (likewise gas, food, bar tabs, ...).

         And, if the interview subject is particularly elderly, taking into account the needs of the subject's caregiver is also a high priority. Even though the caregiver may be paid, they usually have a fairly rigid schedule that must be maintained (for both your own relative and for the relatives of others to whom they provide care services). Making sure that their schedule or workload is not put under any stress, or that any of their other clients are not inconvenienced, is essential. If the interview subject is themselves a caregiver, flexibility in scheduling is often the best accomodation you might make for them.

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    Where Should The Interview Be Conducted?

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