The History of your Family or your Family in History?

By Mike Pearson

Part 1: Introduction and interviews

Members of the Black Country Society will have been drawn to the Society for any number of reasons. They may be interested in the history of the Black Country, or like me, they started looking at family history and realised there was more to that than collecting a list of names. They may only be interested in the industry of the region, or some other facet of Black Country life. What I propose to do with this and subsequent articles is to broaden readers' horizons and maybe give a reason for starting or continuing research. It is not intended to replace any of the excellent advice available in any of the publications available, or on the Internet, which has developed into a massive research tool for both family and local history.

Basic Advice

The best place to start is with you. Write down your recollections of your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. It may surprise you just how much knowledge you have. Gather together any documents you can - in particular certificates, photographs, newspaper cuttings and the like. We will discuss later how to catalogue and document your research, using source material and cross-referencing to ensure your work is accurate.

Once you have exhausted your own knowledge it is time to speak to others. You could start by visiting your local archive and ordering birth, marriage and death certificates, but I would advise against this just now. Hopefully most of you will have older relatives you can begin with when starting your research. Depending on their age I would advise interviewing them as soon as possible after the decision is made to start your research. The younger you are when you start the better. None of us are getting any younger, and memories do fade, you may regret any decision to start in a couple of years, you could lose quite a lot of information.

In order to gain the interest of your relatives and to focus their attention on the job in hand, here are a few tips. It will help to send them a copy of any notes and documents you want to try and expand upon with them. You may have an incomplete memory of a subject, and you may have made errors that are easily spotted. You will also show how serious you are about your research, set a time and date for the interview, ask to borrow in advance any documentary material your relative may have. If you can examine this before the interview all the better, you will appear more knowledgeable and professional. Remember, you may encounter some resistance, you may be seen as a gold-digger looking for an inheritance, people may think you are eyeing medals or other heirlooms with a view to acquiring them.

Interview Skills

On the day of the interview be prepared, depending on how you plan to record your findings make sure you have enough supplies - pen and paper, batteries for a tape recorder, a digital or other camera should you need it. Then it will be time, introduce what you plan to do to your subject, put them at ease, this is not an interrogation. Try to make the surroundings comfortable and conducive to an interview, ask for the TV or radio to be switched off, pick a time when any children will be out, possibly even partners. It is usually best to interview one person at a time.

Questioning Skills

Now your questioning skills become important. I believe it is best to have some sort of recording device and just let them talk about their memories. Try not to ask questions, merely listen to what is being said and make notes about possible areas you wish to clarify later on. There are also questioning techniques you may also wish to use, some of these are listed below, but this is not an exhaustive list:

Open questions - Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem, the first verse says it all:

I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

If you start your early questions with one of the above you will encourage the interviewee to talk and not just answer the question. Don't be tempted to close down the question though, for example:

"What is your first memory - was it before you started school"
"Who took you to Blackpool - was it your parents"

These examples show how you can narrow down the answer given, and perhaps not provide you with the information you want, or may even produce incorrect information.

Tell me about - another good way of encouraging someone to talk freely, for example:

"Tell me about your earliest memory"
"Tell me about junior school"

These types of question encourage people to talk freely and possibly give you more information than you thought you were going to get. These are techniques used by agencies such as the police; they are very successful when the subject wants to help to provide information - a witness for example. Another technique might be to leave them with the tape recorder or Mini disk player, with a good supply of tapes, and visit them a week or so later to collect what they have recorded. Try to use a simple to use piece of equipment and show your subject how it works, leave simple instructions.

Collating Your Data

The next phase is crucial, and may be time consuming, you need to listen to the tapes and make notes, names, dates, events and other interesting facts. There may be parts of the tapes that you wish to keep, if you have a computer this makes preservation easier as you can record onto the computer and make your own CD. Personal recollections can be fascinating and social "documents" in their own right. If you plan to publish old family photographs on video or DVD a background of sound can add greatly to the presentation. Also, by using a computer you can edit out sections that you don't need and make sense of those sections you want to keep by giving the file or clip a name that reflects the subject matter.

After you have listened, and possibly digitised the audio you will be able to start collating the family history data that you have gathered. I will cover the ways of achieving this next time, but first I want to return to the next phase of the interview process.

Either by using open questions or by leaving the tape or mini disk with your relative you will have quite a bit of information. Some of this will be very easy to process, who married whom, children's' details, where people lived, worked, went to school, where they were entertained, what their hobbies were and so on. You will also have a number of questions that you want to ask, either to clarify an area you may be confused about, or to seek further information and possibly put dates to certain events. This is where your questioning skills will come in. You may need a second visit, especially to a keen relative who knows lots about your family.

Another useful questioning technique you can use is called echoing, with a variant being reflective echoing. This works if you are asking questions for the first stage of the interview. It is why you should make a few notes while listening to the answers being given. If there is a subject you want to hear more about then by repeating part of what your subject has said this will encourage them to expand on their knowledge, for example:

Subject: "I met your Uncle George while we were bicycling in the Cotswolds"

Now bicycling might come as a surprise to you as this may have taken place many years ago. You might just interrupt the flow by saying, "bicycling", which would be the technique of echoing. You may also make a decision that what you are listening to is more important than branching off into the subject of bicycling, so you make a short note, and when there is a break. Again, introduce the subject you are interested in simply by using one or two words, this would be reflective echoing - taking the person back.

Open questions will help you gather information, echoing will develop the subjects you are most interested in, but there will come a time further on where you will need to close down some of your questions, maybe to help narrow down dates or events. Closed questions can be very useful, but be careful how you use them, they encourage short or single word (yes or no) answers, if the person you are interviewing becomes confused about facts they may give an answer that is wrong.

There are many interview techniques and you will soon find things you find work well for you. A good tip would be to listen to good interviewers on radio or television; they use the same simple techniques I have described. You will also see interviewers that are not very good. Of course I am not going to name any bad interviewers, I am sure you will develop your skills over time.

This concludes the first part of my series. In the next issue I will discuss ways of recording your data both in paper form and on computer. There are a number of methods that can be used, and I will try and explain a selection.


Future articles will explore how to obtain certificates of births, deaths and marriages, how to use census and parish records, where other information can be obtained, such as newspapers etc. I will also cover ways of putting the meat on the bones of linking your family members to events in history and maybe even some advice on how to put your research into a form that can be published.