The holidays are often occasions when families gather together to share a meal, to catch up, and at times, to argue. Instead of the latter, if you are lucky enough to be surrounded by family members, consider taking advantage of having them all together by starting a conversation about your family's history. Ask your relatives about their most vivid childhood memories. Ask them what they know about your family's roots. Ask about birthdays, marriages, and family traditions. Start to gather the pieces of your family's past as you pass the potatoes (or your favorite dish on your family's table), and be grateful that you have loved ones around to share their stories with you. And I highly suggest recording these interviews with your relatives. Imagine watching a video now of your holidays from 1996, when you learned that Great-Grandma Livia (pictured with Great-Grandpa John in 1959) was a matchmaker: at an opportune moment back in 1949, she arranged for a boy with a crush (Uncle Pete) to return a borrowed silver platter to the girl on whom he was crushing (Aunt Jennie), and it resulted in a 66-year marriage. What stories could you have captured twenty years ago that may now be lost to history? Who was around then that isn't around today? Holidays are natural opportunities to get to know your family members, so seize the chance to interview them and preserve their treasured tales.
FIGURING OUT WHAT QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR RELATIVES
If You Merely Have Minutes:
If you have only a few minutes to ask your relatives questions while you're eating dinner, your interviews are likely going to be fairly informal. That's great - these are your interviews - they can be as long or short, as formal or informal as you like. You may already have a sense of what you’d like to ask your family members, but if you’re looking for some resources to help you put together your questions, here are a few:
- UCLA Center for Oral History: A list of questions from experts at the UCLA Center for Oral History.
- StoryCorps Great Questions: A list of questions, broken up into categories.
- Now and Then: Your Life Story Writing Guide, by Jennifer Campbell: This is geared towards writing a life history, but it’s filled with great questions that can serve as an interview guide. Choose the questions that work for you.
If You Happily Have Hours:
If your family members are willing, see if you can do long-form, in-depth video interviews with them. If you’re familiar with our Archive of American Television interviews, you know that we follow a life history format, which is a great way to explore someone’s story. We start with questions about the interviewee’s early years and influences: name at birth, when and where s/he was born, parents’ names and occupations, early interests, hobbies, family and school life, etc. If you’re interviewing a family member, there are lots of opportunities to learn interesting tidbits here! I learned that my dad didn’t have a middle name at birth. I always assumed his full name was on his birth certificate, but his middle name came along when he was seven. The things you learn when you actually ask questions.
For Archive interviews, we then move into how the interviewee got started in his/her career. We talk about early jobs, learning a trade, co-workers, and memorable moments. We have a craft section, and at the conclusion of the interview we talk about lessons learned and advice for future generations. It’s a nice model for hitting on different events and emotions in someone’s life.
When I interviewed my own parents, I started by asking the first set of questions about my great-grandparents, the earliest generation that my parents knew personally (and the generation that emigrated to the United States). “What was your grandfather’s name at birth? When and where was he born?” My goal was to get as much information about the generations that came before as possible. (Full disclosure: my interviews with my parents were quite long, 4-7 hours each. But if your scope is not multi-generational, just scale back your questions accordingly.)
I got rich answers from my parents' interviews that told me stories I had never heard before. My mother’s Grandpa Louis loved Chiclets and sunflower seeds. My father’s Grandpa John fought constantly with his own father, and never spoke to him again after leaving Italy. My Grandpop Moishe was a volunteer air raid warden during World War II. Those people whom you’ve heard of in passing, or whose name you knew only from a label penciled onto the back of a crimped photograph, come alive when you know their likes and dislikes, their grudges, their passions. I love that these people from my past are now part of my present.
Here are some examples of various types of family oral histories:
- Talk to Me: The Huffington Post’s series in which children interview parents. Here's their How-To Guide for making your own "Talk to Me" video.
- Family Film School: Our friends at The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences have a series in which families with multiple generations in the business sit down for a chat.
- StoryCorps: Audio interviews between generations (some between colleagues, friends, peers, too.)
STARTING DOWN THE GENEALOGICAL RABBIT HOLE
If you're at a relative's house for the holidays, ask to see family photos. Maybe you'll discover albums full of old black and white photographs. Maybe you'll get to see '60's slides in a Kodak Carousel and your grandparents' vacation to Las Vegas will spring to life. Maybe you'll get a peek at 8mm films of your father's 16th birthday. (Those are priceless. And my dad was HANDSOME.) Ask your relatives if they have family members' diaries or letters (correspondence during war years, love letters, letters between pen pals), birth/death/marriage/naturalization records, newspaper clippings, photos, home videos (many of mine contain headless bodies if Grandpop Phil was the videographer), etc. These are the primary source materials of a family historian's dreams - the eyewitness accounts/documents created from the time your ancestors were alive. I was a history major in college, so I'm trained to look for primary sources when conducting research and I LOVE when I actually find them. You will, too.
Here at the Archive, when doing research for an interview, I look to primary sources as much as possible. I watch the actual television show/episode I’m going to talk about in the interview. This gets tricky with some early material (thank you Paley Center for Media), but I like to go to the original source if I can. I read autobiographies and watch other interviews that the interviewee has given during different points in his/her life. I’ll look at secondary materials, too - I read period newspaper and magazine articles, and sometimes the obituaries of the interviewee’s parents (to learn more about the people who shaped the interviewee’s life). I read critiques of shows, television history books, etc., and then I make a packet full of all the materials that I’ve gathered, usually 50-150 pages or so: a chronological guide to the person’s life. It’s my bible for the interview.
We spend weeks researching the life of the interviewee and creating an interview guide of questions. (You don’t need to spend weeks doing research for your family interviews - if you’ve already got questions in mind, by all means, begin!) But you might be inspired to go looking for an official document after a family member tells you a particular story. Or maybe a letter a relative gives you makes you want to research your ancestor's military service. Perhaps you've already done some genealogical research - in that case, read through the materials you uncover, and see if any questions surface that you want to ask your family members. You can spend twenty minutes on research, twenty days, twenty years. Do as much or as little research as you like, but know that there are likley some genealogical gems out there just waiting for you to discover them. If you’re interested in delving into your past to learn the genealogy of your family, come along for the ride. I promise it will be worth it - it just takes a little detective work. So go get your cap and magnifying glass; we've got some work to do.
Conducting Genealogical Research
I am a genealogy junkie. I’m addicted to finding ships' logs, census records, birth and death certificates, local newspaper clippings, military records… if a document exists about a family member, I want to see it. I’m fascinated by looking at Great-Grandpa John's signature on his naturalization card and reading the assigned description of his complexion: ruddy (translation: Italian). I got a sense of peace when I located the death certificate of Grandpop Moishe's twin, Henry, who died at two days old, and then bafflement when a whole new, still-unsolved mystery opened up when I discovered Henry's birth certificate. I was stunned when a census report revealed that Grandmom Minnie had a sibling named Dora who died before my grandmother was born, and no one in my family had ever heard of this older sister. I located the cemetery where Dora was buried and paid my respects. Each document that I uncover is a piece of the paper trail of my DNA, and often serves as a starting point for me to learn more about a person from my past.
If you want to go sleuthing for primary texts from your family's history, here are some places to begin:
- Ancestry.com: Take advantage of the free two-week trial period. Start typing in names of family members and you’ll likely find some associated documents. Try multiple spellings of last names in your search (e.g. Faillace, Faillaci, Fallaci) - with all of these sites listed, remember that data has been transferred to computers by humans who are trying to decipher original cursive records, which were often written by someone who did not speak the language of the person entering the country. There's plenty of room for human error here.
- Cyndi’s List: A great aggregate of sites for genealogical research, broken down by categories - location, immigration, etc.
- Ellis Island Foundation: If you have family members who emigrated to the U.S. through Ellis Island, you’ll likely be able to find the ship's log of their journey to America.
- FamilySearch: A large records repository, assembled by the Church of Latter Day Saints, includes a repository for African American Genealogy Records.
- Federal Land Records: Titles, deeds, etc. If you know family members owned land in the U.S., this might be a great place to start to find where that property was. Also consider looking at city maps of neighborhoods - you can learn interesting connections by seeing whom your family members lived next door to or down the street from.
- Historical societies: There are state, county, and city societies. Each may help give context and specificity to government records.
- JewishGen: A starting point for those with Jewish ancestry.
- Local archives: Cities have archives where records are kept. They usually have names like “Office of Vital Records.” Check out the archive in the city where your family has roots and see what documents you can find. You can often find birth/death/marriage records, deeds of sale, etc.
- Local newspapers: Newspapers have archives, too. Some are digitized and online, some are not. If not, visit your local paper and ask to look through back issues. If your relatives were business owners, you may be able to find ads run for those businesses. You might find obituaries, accounts of awards won, birth announcements, etc. These kinds of clippings help give the people of your past a context that you might not otherwise get from an official government document.
- National Archives: Where many government records are housed. You can request military records here.
If you love the idea of family history and genealogy, but don’t actually want to dive into doing all the work yourself, there are people out there who will gladly do it for you. Check out the Association of Personal Historians to locate someone in your area who would be thrilled to start assembling your family’s history.
With the documents you discover from your research, you’re now armed with the roots and branches of your family tree. It's time to put some leaves and flowers on them with the information you'll glean from interviews with your relatives. Remember: your family members are primary sources, too - first-hand witnesses to the events in their own lives, and often valuable secondary sources of family lore passed down from their parents and grandparents. Your relatives are perhaps your most treasured resources of all.
GO FORTH AND INTERVIEW
If the tips for interviewing and researching outlined above are helpful to you, wonderful. If they seem overwhelming, just set up a camera and start asking your relatives what you’ve always wanted to know about your family's history. Use the video feature on your phone and record short segments. Set up an audio recorder if you don't want to do video. Ask family members to write down their most memorable moments. There are many different ways to conduct family history interviews; the most important thing is to actually do them. Now. Before the people you love aren’t around anymore and this becomes one of those things you regret not doing.
So if you're gathering with relatives for a meal this holiday season, consider positioning a camera, an audio recorder, or a stenographer at the table. Ask your family members about their memories of their grandparents, about their high school crushes, about their first memories of you. Ask them if they have old photos, home movies, letters, or keepsakes that you could look at - maybe you'll get a glimpse of the matchmaker's silver platter. Ask about the pieces of your family’s past, and you’ll start to see a clearer picture of yourself. Odds are there will be some scars and wrinkles in there, but rest assured, it’s a picture worth examining and preserving for future generations.
- Adrienne Faillace
To learn more about the value of oral histories, check out the first Producer's Pointers article in this series: Why I Became an Oral Historian and How You Can Be One, Too.