Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Key to Interviews is Courtesy

This is a follow-up to Letter Writing for Genealogists. That post focused more on correspondence with government agencies and repositories. Today's post is more about how to communicate with individual people. This is a updated version of a article I wrote in 2004 for the McDuffie Mirror.

There are people out there who have information you need. The trick is getting that information from people who are not as passionate about family history as you are. You will be contacting these people by letter, e-mail, phone and in person. Here are a few tips to help you out.

When you send letters (and emails) to people you do not know, introduce yourself by not only explaining who you are but how you are related to them. Do not send form letters; make each letter personal. Many genealogy programs have pages and pages of interview questions. Do not print these and then send them out. This is an instant turn-off and those letters will end up in the garbage can. Just use those interview questions as a reference. Do not ask for too much information at one time. Always send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for their reply. Do not be surprised if you get no answer at all. I have sent as many as 50 letters at a time and maybe gotten two or three responses back.

Whether you call someone on the phone or you visit them in person for the first time, thoroughly explain who you are and why you are calling. Many people are uncomfortable speaking with someone they don't know though you will find those that LOVE to talk and tell you all about their family. A person will be more willing to open up to you if they know you are Aunt Mary's second cousin on her father's side.

If the person is giving you a lot of information, ask if you can use a tape recorder. Then you will be able to give the person your full attention instead of trying to take notes. Always offer the person a copy of the research you have done on their branch of the family. Not only does the person feel as though they are getting something in return for their cooperation, it just might get them interested in their family history.

Interview the oldest people you know first. It is very sad when someone dies before they are able to pass on the knowledge they have about the family. In 1976, I attended a family reunion in which my great-grandaunt also attended. She was 100 years old. At that time I wasn't the least but interested in genealogy. In my own defense, I was only 14 years old. Can you imagine what she could have told me had I been smart enough to sit down and listen to her old stories? She died when she was 102 years old and all she knew is forever lost.

I recommend that you have business cards/calling cards printed up with all of your contact information. It is much more professional than scrounging around for a piece of paper and a pencil when someone wants your phone number and address. This is especially important at family reunions. Pass your cards out to everyone. When you attend a family reunion, bring photos and nicely printed out reports so that you can show interested family members. If you impress them you will hear back from them.

If the people you are interviewing have photos, documents, Bibles etc. that would be important to your research, ask them if you can get copies of what they have. They may allow you to copy the items, they may prefer to make the copies themselves or they may tell you to go away and never come back. If they allow you to have copies then thank them and pay for all of the costs incurred.

Something as simple as common courtesy will take you far.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis

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