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Why Interview a Family Member? (β)

Everyone Has a Story.

     Everyone has a story — from 5 year-olds to super-centenarians. Just asking the casual question "Did anything interesting happen with you today?" will elicit at least a couple of minutes of description of a recent event. By the time someone has made it into their 60's they probably have several hours worth of stories to tell (if only someone asks for them to 'tell a story'). The big difference between sitting on the porch and listening to your grandmother talk about how things were when she was a young girl and doing a formal interview with her, with microphones (and maybe a video camera) is the presence of the equipment, the interviewer and the knowledge that what she is saying is 'on the record' for everyone in the family to hear. The formality of the recording process may incline your intended interview subject to beg off on the grounds that they don't have any stories. Convincing your desired subject to participate in a formal interview recording session may be the toughest task that you will have in the entire project. Just remember to remind your proposed subject that they do have stories to tell, and convince them that those stories will be well worth hearing for many years afterwards.

Making the case to yourself so that you
may then (successfully) make the case to a family member.

     Oral history interview recordings of any group of individuals will never be able to replace the documents that you have already assembled to construct your family tree — an oral history project should be done as an adjunct to an existing family genealogical project. Documents, photographs, sound & visual recordings and physical artifacts (such as treasured personal items) are all elements of a family history archive.

     The documents describing an individual tend to be a bit bland — they give the facts, but offer very little insight into their character or personality. Still photographs may offer a better glimpse of that person, but they are just frozen moments in time. An aural (and/or visual) record — a sound recording, movie or video — will give "life" to the moments that are captured. Until holographic movies come along, they will be the best method of capturing an individual's spirit and passing that record down to generations yet unborn.

     This website deals with the aural (sound) method of recording an individual's oral (spoken) history & recollections. Although it is obviously deficient when compared with home movies or videos, it will be significantly cheaper to accomplish, offer a less "intrusive" experience to the interview subject, but be more illuminating in the breadth of information that is inadvertantly offered up in the more casual (and conversational) process of an interview. When properly conducted, your interview subjects should easily forget that they are being recorded and open up to you in ways that will suprise even them.

     The recordings that you make should not be viewed as something that will necessarily be of greatest value to the current generations of family members — they've probably heard a lot of the stories individually, scattered across the decades. The real value of your recordings will be to the generations of family members that are yet to be born. A seemingly innocuous aside may well be of great interest to someone a century in the future; the simple details of day-to-day living in today's world will likely be completely foreign to a person born in the 22nd century.

     The recordings will not be made because the subject led a life of greatness. They will be made because the subject lived a life in a world that no longer exists for the listener — a listener who may well not have existed if the interview subject had not lived the life that they lived. The interview subject that "didn't do anything special" in their life is at least as valuable to a future family generation as one that has been written up as an "accomplished" individual. Their stories address the most important questions a person may have — "Where did I come from"; "How do you deal with love"; "How do you deal with death"; and a hundred other thoughts.

     If you have started doing a family genealogy project you already know all of this.

     And, you also known that time waits for no one. Death, catastophic illness, loss of family documents, ... may come at any time. The worst realization that the genealogist may have is that some unique & irreplaceable family history asset has been lost before they could gain access to it. A family historian always operates with a sense of urgency; of trying to stay ahead of floods, fires, rot, misplacement and the Grim Reaper.

     Being unable to access an existing resource is always frustrating, especially when the person that possesses that resource doesn't trust you to treat it properly. ("you'll lose it"; "you'll break it"; "you won't return it — you'll keep it") The same applies when it comes to cajoling someone into being interviewed for your oral history project — "you'll just be wasting my time;" "nobody wants to hear what I have to say;" "I'm going to Arizona for the winter - I'll think about it and get back to you;" a seemingly endless litany of excuses for not being interviewed.

     Pushing a potential interview subject too hard may produce a backlash against participation in the project. Not pushing potential subjects hard enough will result in little or no progress in the project. After working on the rest of the family genealogy project for a while you've probably come to the conclusion that in order to get what you need you will need to be able to answer any question or complaint the moment that it is raised. Questions about the interview process. Questions about the distribution of the interview recordings. Resistance based upon the assertion that there are other means to the desired end (which have yet to be identified as ....).

     Most importantly — questions about "why me?" Being able to answer that question may often be the difference between a recorded interview and a family member who remains silent to all future generations. It is one thing for an individual to "have their say" to someone, in person, today; if that person wishes to continue to "have their say" beyond the present day, speaking into a microphone or camera is a pretty good way to go about it.

     For all of those reasons and the dozens more that you've already needed to employ to build the family tree, being interviewed on tape is a way for someone to extend their own legacy.

     And, for all of the rants that I will deliever about things that should be avoided (if at all possible), never let any of those difficulties prevent you from conducting an interview with your subject on their terms. All of the hassles, family squabbles, acoustic horrors, etc. will, in the long run, prove to have been worth enduring.

Making the exception.

     There are individual exceptions to your project — the people that you will not be interviewing. These are the people who in their life have been a royal affliction upon their family members; they are the ones that are perpetually out-of-it (booze, drugs, just plain stupidity); they have repulsive habits (not showering for months at a time, smoking 6 packs a day of Kools, use of vile verbage, ...). These are the people you avoid inviting to any family event. These are the people that, when they finally do die, will have a funeral/memorial service attended only by the mortuary staff. These are the people that blew you off for decades without regard for why or what you were seeking their attention or help.

     If they should wish to be interviewed, it is all fair and proper to turn them down — they have long-since vacated any claim to your time or effort. Don't feel guilty; let them stew in their own bile. If you absolutely must interview them (due to some unique event in their life) do it at neutral site. If they want to get up and walk out (or you wish to abruptly terminate the interview because of their behavior) you will (hopefully) lessen the impact of the termination on your equipment or psyche. They won't look very adult if they are screaming away at you in a public space ... you might just have strangers asking if you would like for them to call the police. And, including the recording of a post-interview confrontation always makes for a good listen.

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