Long-Distance Interviews
9/27/2009
You don't have to go to great lengths to capture far-flung relatives' memories: Just call on these five ways to conduct oral history interviews across the miles.
Our ancestors had two options when they wanted to interview relatives about the family history. They either did it in person, or they relied on the Pony Express driver to get their letters full of questions safely to their destinations. Fortunately, you live in the 21st century, so you have better options when you need to conduct interviews long-distance. With the convenience of modern communications, you have no excuse for waiting to squeeze each and every genealogical detail out of your relatives—whether they live around the corner or across the continent.

And let's face it: You probably don't have the time (or money) to hop planes from Uncle Albert in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to cousin Phoebe in Scranton, Pa., to Great-aunt Louise in Snowflake, Ariz., in your quest to capture family stories. But you still can cull their memories—without even leaving the city limits. We'll take a look at five ways to conduct interviews from afar, with hints for doing so successfully. But before we do, let's review some of the highlights from Oral History Interviewing 101, since they apply to all types of interviews.

Oral history basics
Your first task is to consider potential interviewees. While older relatives will be your priority and the best source for stories, don't neglect your younger relatives. They've likely heard their elders recite family stories, too. Other good interview candidates include your parents' and grandparents' friends and neighbors, the town historian, or simply someone from the same generation, same ethnic background and same area as your relatives. As your pool of possible subjects grows, so does the likelihood that you'll need to conduct long-distance interviews: All your sources probably won't live within driving distance from home.

Next, you need to ask yourself a question: "What is the purpose of conducting an oral history interview with this particular relative?" Is your goal to get "just the facts, ma'am, nothin' but the facts"? Or is it to learn about what life was like for that person? We genealogists do have to start with the basic facts—the who, when and where. But keep in mind that you'll probably find all of that information in a record somewhere once you begin research.

What you won't find in the records are people's thoughts, feelings and motivations—the why, how and what. These are the intangibles that make a person unique, and they'll go to the grave when that person dies—unless someone records them. Aunt Enid's birth certificate and Great-grandpa's pension record, however, will be around long after we're all gone.

In Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life (Story Press, out of print), Philip Gerard reminds us of three facts about human nature that apply to conducting interviews:

1. People love to talk about themselves to someone who seems genuinely interested.

2. If someone talks long enough, he or she will inevitably tell you something [he or she] didn't intend to tell you.

3. People have a strong aversion to long pauses in a conversation [so] without [your] even asking a question, they will usually talk to fill the silence.

My favorite book for preparing questions to ask in oral history interviews, whether in person or long-distance, is William Fletcher's Recording Your Family History: A Guide to Preserving Oral History Using Audio and Video Tape (Ten Speed Press). Although out of print, this book is still the best guide I've found, and you can track down a used copy at online and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Fletcher offers hundreds of questions to help you capture family stories that will likely be lost if they're not recorded. The book's chapters are broken down by the life cycle and specific national events as they relate to the everyday person: family history, childhood, youth, middle age, old age, narrator as parent, grandchildren, historical events, general questions, unusual life experiences and personal philosophy and values. Fletcher also suggests special questions for interviewing Jewish, black and Hispanic relatives. Other guidebooks, such as Emily Anne Croom's Unpuzzling Your Past, 4th edition (Betterway Books, $18.99), provide similar questions, but if you can latch onto a copy of Fletcher, too, you'll have a broad variety of prompts to use.