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Gathering family history – sometimes you need to ask questions more than once

When I first started out as a new genealogist, I gathered what I could from Mom – mostly births, marriages, deaths, and some random stories. Here’s what I learned on my first trip to the family well of knowledge and what I learned later about my father’s side of the family.

Legend has it that my grandmother Gladys was an uncaring mother. She parked my father’s baby carriage outside bars and would go in for a drink. She and my grandfather were divorced and she became a single mother. Suddenly single and having to work, Gladys put my father in a private boarding school and went to work at a newspaper in New York (I am unable to find her during her years in New York). When my father became ill and the school couldn’t find his mother’s contact information, they called his paternal grandmother. She went to the boarding school and picked him up and brought him to her own home.

What I learned later is that sometimes there is more to family legend than the little we know on the face of things. Reality may have not been quite so grim…

Having seen and read enough fictional dramas that have fed my imagination, I wondered if perhaps he was separated from his mother by a resentful grandmother, who may have refused to allow Gladys to see him. Who knows what the truth really is? Only the dead know.

When I talked with my mother again, I told her that I couldn’t find any information about Gladys Bowman or her parents, other than their names. That is when the well opened and I was treated to a number of interesting stories that have created a picture for me of what life was like for the Bowman family. I didn’t know to ask, the revelations came as a reaction to my lack of ability to find information.

My mother said that Gladys as a very beautiful woman, but a heavy drinker. She and her ex-husband Ray were “drinking buddies” and went out together all the time even after their divorce and that they were actually each other’s best friend. I found that thought comforting to hear.

I also heard a fun story about Gladys’ father, Martin Bowman – he ran an illegal gambling operation from home and, as Mom says, “the police were always at the house running raids on the illegal gambling hall that he managed to run in his house.” Clearly, Martin was a more colorful character than I ever imagined. Before I found out about the gambling he ran, all I had was a name and few dates for Martin Bowman and his wife Bridget Kerrigan.

I learned a powerful lesson. As a genealogist, trips to the well need to continue and occur over and over to get to the root of all the fascinating stories that surround my family tree. I don’t want to just know dates, I want to know them.

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Posted by on May 30, 2011 in interviewing family

 

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My reflections on the interview process

I conducted interviews via email and face-to-face. Both interview types had a completely different feel and the interactions were also completely different. I have say in retrospect, that neither interview type was particularly better or worse than the other. Each held a unique opportunity for learning.

I was very fortunate to receive such a positive response from people in the #genealogy  group on twitter. I had three genealogists come forward to answer my questions via email, two were from twitter and one was from a NJ searcher who found my genealogy blog and invited me to email her. I suspect that more genealogists would have come forward if I asked them to. I follow the #genealogy group on twitter and exchange messages with them routinely.

My interviews via email were fairly stable in that I sent them the questions I developed that are posted here on this blog and they answered those questions. Answers were creative, however, in that respondents answered the questions but also expounded on information that they felt would be most helpful. Probably the best question was at the end where I asked if there was anything they would like to add. I got great answers that covered everything from how to organize my paperwork to resources I might want to utilize in my research.

My in-person interview of the head of the local historical society was far more fluid than my interviews via email. Although I went to the interview with the same set of questions, I only got to ask a couple of them. This didn’t turn out to be a bad thing at all. After starting out with the first question about how she got started with her own genealogy, my interviewee’s experience as a high school teacher kicked in and she began to teach me about genealogy and how to find information. She also advised me to put one of my children as the main person at the start of the family tree and to research both my side and my husband’s side. Those who have experience to share from both sides of the family are getting older and if I waited until my side of the tree was completed, then those on my husband’s side might well be gone. She also advised me to write to my living relatives now and ask them about family history as well as ask them to share information if they already have started a family tree. I have received a lot of information now from both sides of the family.

Although I am still a beginner who is a bit overwhelmed, I feel there are fellow searchers out there that I can reach out to for help and inspiration. I have found that genealogists in general are a very generous group who are happy to help a fellow searcher. This started out as a proposed topic for a class, but now it is a research passion for life.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2010 in interviewing, random musings

 

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Interviews

My interview with the head of the local historical society went exactly as I expected (she prefers that I don’t use her name). I asked two questions: How did you get started doing your family tree? How would you advise a new genealogist to begin her research?

She was bursting with enthusiasm. A retired teacher, she was really in her element. Not only did she tell me about her own genealogical search, but she began to teach me how to begin. She gave me forms – family group sheets, beginning pedigree charts (a visual representation that you fill out that represents your family tree), and some reading material to take home with me. We plan to meet again next week.

I was also very fortunate to meet two genealogists on twitter and a NJ genealogist who commented on my class blog with an invitation to email her. All were gracious enough to agree to be interviewed. All were willing to allow me to use their real names:

All of these generous people told me how they got started, gave advice on how I could proceed, and one of them gave me a long list of free sites that I can access for information. Most of them, though interested in genealogy at a young age, didn’t become serious about it until adulthood. All offered to stay in touch and answer any other questions that might arise. I plan to use their extensive answers to aid me in my search for my ancestors. If I proceed with this topic for my thesis, then I will reconnect with them and, with their permission, use the information they provided and their identities in that as well.

A large, heartfelt thank you to all.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2010 in interviewing

 

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Interview questions, interviewees, interview schedule

Interview Questions:

I devised a set of interview questions that could be used as a jumping off point, with my hope being that during the interview process the exchange would be more fluid and I would not be held inside the box, but could work outside of that box. That said, the people I met on Twitter, by necessity, have been posed the full set of questions. Email doesn’t allow quite as much flexibility as a face-to-face encounter might.

The first questions were influenced by me revealing who I was, what I was working on, and that information might be posted on the internet and that a goal was to write an article for publication.

These are the questions I came up with:

  1. Do you still want to communicate with me or would you prefer not to?
  2. How do you feel about being quoted? Is it okay if I use your twitter ID in quotes?  OR would you prefer to remain anonymous?  OR would you like me to use your real name?  —> completely up to you
  3. When did you first become interested in genealogy?
  4. How did you start out?
  5. Did you have much information from your family to start?
  6. Did you have any previous family stories and legends?
  7. Have you found family legends to be true? (I’ve heard that one of my ancestors on my mother’s side was shot in the abdomen during the civil war and survived – I’ll have to figure out how to verify that one)
  8. 8. Have you travelled much in your genealogy search, or were you able to find most facts online?
  9.  How far back in your family tree have you gotten and how much more do you expect to research?
  10. Where would you suggest the beginning genealogist start?
  11. Are there any sites you would recommend for a beginning genealogist on a tight budget?
  12. What would you like to add that might be helpful?
  13. Is there anything that I should have asked that I didn’t think to ask?

 Interviewees and interview schedule:

2 interviews in person: I will be interviewing the two Historical Society volunteers who put out the initial flyers regarding researching the family tree. The interview is scheduled for Thursday, March 11th – since I have not given them the heads up regarding the web page and publication, I can’t reveal their names here.

2 internet-based interviews: I met multiple people on twitter who had an interest in genealogy. Two of those twitter acquaintances agreed to be interviewed. When given the choice of interview techniques (twitter, email, instant messaging), both chose email. One of those interviewees got back to me right away, answered interview questions in great detail, and said it was okay to use her name – her name is Paula Hinkel (twitter ID: @scgsgenealogy). The other twitter acquaintance has promised to answer my email questions at the end of this week. I can’t reveal her identity until she gives me the okay to do so.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2010 in interviewing

 

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A fluid approach to interviewing

Gubrium and Holstein don’t necessarily either advocate a fluid interview or a structured interview in Postmodern Interviewing. However, one quote caught my eye. The authors quote Studs Terkel with the following, “There were questions, of course. But they were casual in nature … the kind you would ask while having a drink with someone … it was a conversation. In time the sluice gates of dammed up hurts and dreams were open.” (69) Clearly, for a scientific study some protocols and rigidity must be adhered to because specific questions must be answered – you can’t allow an interview to become a conversation like the one Terkel describes. But is such rigidity necessary in most of the research studies this class plans to conduct? No.

Part of my research plan is to interview the Historical Society personnel. Specifically, I plan to find out how to research my family tree. Still, with that goal in mind, I believe the interview needs to be a fluid one. I will begin by asking some specific questions about the flyer I found in the community center library about finding your roots. Then I would ask them what resources they have available. When I move on to ask them about their own experiences, I hope that the interview will take on that fluid nature where the interviewees begin to share more information than they are being asked to provide.

When an interview is allowed to be fluid, more information than you seek can be shared. People tend to open up and tell you things you may not have originally thought of – things that later turn out to be important. In that additional information interviewees provide, some gems may turn up that could enhance the process and enhance your study. Following a fluid interview process, you could learn more than you might if you were rigid with your interview process.

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2010 in Reading response

 

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