GenTips: Back to Basics: Oral History Obstacles

Posted September 18, 2008 by Geni | No Comment

In this post, Geni guest blogger and avid genealogist Lisa Alzo explains some oral history obstacles she faced. She goes on to offer some solutions and hints as to how she overcame those obstacles and how you can too. If you missed Lisa’s first post in this series, Interview Your Relatives, you may want to read that one first.

Finding relatives who can fill in the blanks in your family’s story takes you beyond just the names, dates, and places. Perhaps you’ve made a list of those living family members who are potential interviewees, have made initial contact, and perhaps even scheduled a visit.  But oral history isn’t always as easy as it sounds.  Sometimes you run into obstacles. Uncle Roger clams up every time you mention Uncle Sam (a.k.a. the “black sheep” of the family).  Aunt Sally suddenly says “Oh, I can’t or don’t want to talk about that.” Or, you receive a comment similar to this one I received from my father several years ago when I asked him what he knew about his ancestors:  “What do I care about those people, they’re dead…I didn’t know them.”  Then there’s the dreaded possibility that you haven’t been able to identify any close living family members to interview—as far as you know everyone who could have helped answer your questions has passed away.

Don’t give up hope.  Your oral history brick walls need not become permanent barriers to the answers you seek.  Here are some tips that may help.

1.  Cultivate the relationship – Now, of course, once you make contact, you should be prepared that not everyone may respond to your requests for information, or be willing to share precious family treasures with you immediately.  If you’re not particularly close to this relative, you may have to work at cultivating a relationship and developing a sense of trust.  Now is not the time to be shy.  Every moment you delay contacting possible living kin brings you closer to the possibility that those who may have the information will no longer be around to pass it along.  Remember, your relatives aren’t just living repositories to aid you in your genealogical pursuits—they have thoughts, feelings, and memories.  Be respectful during your quest for information.

2.  Change Your Approach – Try breaking the ice by discussing a subject he or she is more at ease talking about (sports, military service, recipes, etc.).  With my father, I could tell I was hitting a dead end when I kept asking if he was “sure he didn’t remember being told any stories about his ancestors.”  However, when I changed the subject and asked him about his parents, and his own life, he began to talk more enthusiastically—about them, and then subsequently, about his service in the Navy during WW2 and the years he spent playing basketball at the amateur and professional levels.

3.  Find Common Ground – If you share a common memory with the person, this can help guide the interview.  For example, “Do you remember what happened at so-and-so’s wedding?  That was quite a celebration!”   Or perhaps you can both remember the special foods the family shared at holidays, or another family tradition.  Using photos, heirlooms or other memorabilia may also help to engage the other person in informative dialogue.

4.  Let it Be – As genealogists, we’re taught that time is of the essence, especially when trying to obtain information from older generations.  But, sometimes you have to channel Paul McCartney’s words, and just “Let it Be.”  The more you push, the more the person may refuse to talk.  Sometimes it may take several interviews for you to get the information you desire. This happened when I interviewed my mother in 1991.  I did a total of six interviews in order to be sure I obtained all of the key details about my mother’s childhood and recollections of her parents.  During the second interview, my mother started to talk about some difficult times she experienced in the relationship with her father.  When I asked her to elaborate she said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”  So, I didn’t push her.  But during our third interview, she broke her silence.  This interview provided the framework for the chapter entitled “Discipline” in my book, Three Slovak Women.  You can listen to the interview, and read an excerpt from the chapter on my Web site.

5.  Search Harder for Living Kin – You may think that there is nobody left in the family who can help fill in the gaps regarding your ancestors.  But is it possible you could be mistaken?  Have you really looked for other living kin?  Search for other trees of the same surname.  If you have an unusual surname, you may have luck locating others with the same surname in phone books or city directories (which you can find in most libraries) or use online directories. Yahoo People Search, Lycos, and Switchboard are a few such sites to try.  Or, use Google to search on a person’s name.  Add a location to narrow the results.  Once you have a list of names, you can create a speculative letter to send to those individuals with the same surname, including basic information about your ancestors to see if they know of a connection. You can also check the census records (especially 1930) to see who your ancestors’ neighbors were at that time.  There may be a possibility that some of these folks could be alive and able to give you some information about your family.  Also, be open (to a degree to others finding you.  (You should always use caution when communicating with strangers).  Create a tree on Geni (limited information will be shown to others who search your surname); post or respond to appropriate queries on online message boards. You can read on my Blog the story of how I connected with a 90-year old paternal cousin I never knew about when her son read my book and tracked me down!  Finally, if you truly can’t find anyone to interview, record your own story!

Don’t let obstacles get in the way of recording the oral history of your family.  It’s a critical aspect of the genealogical process—one that must be pursued before it’s too late!

If you enjoyed this post by Lisa please join us in 2 weeks for a follow up post that will discuss what you should do after you’ve interviewed a family member.


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