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How to interview family members

August 17, 2000

How to interview family members



Linda Shopes teaches oral history at Penn State University. She warns that its frequently difficult to interview family members. Some distance and nonjudgment is required, she believes.

Although there are thousands of guidelines, Shopes' advice for the interviewer is not to have a structure or outline. Talk informally, go with the conversation, she recommends.

People tend to date their lives by personal and national events, said Kim Lacy Rogers, professor of history and American studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. They remember the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, the day Kennedy was shot.

There is much to be learned about the values a family passes down by asking questions about daily life - when did the person start school, did they walk to school, how many cars were on the roads, how long did they stay in school?

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"It's just a wonderful window on the past," she believes.

Marie Lanser Beck, a Waynesboro, Pa., writer who has recorded some oral histories, believes that it might be helpful to have 10 or 12 general questions if you are interviewing a family member. But she advises not sticking to a set format. Take your time, don't hurry and don't worry about having blank spaces on the tape, times when the person you are interviewing hesitates. Those "pregnant pauses" sometimes can lead to the deeper stories.

Beck recommends using 60-minute tapes. They are less breakable than those of longer duration.

Family reunions provide opportunities for gathering family stories. Don't wait till next year. Sometimes there's not a next time, and the treasure is lost, Beck said.

"The secret is just to do it," Beck believes.

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