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Research Tip 9: People as Sources for Family History

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG
Most researchers want to find documents to verify life events in ancestors' lives. What if records have been destroyed or provide facts that conflict with one another? People are great sources of information. Their eyes, ears, noses and sense of touch have passed on impressions to their brains describing many aspects of our world, including people and events. A careful interview can uncover a goldmine of information locked in the memory of a witness.

How far back in time will interviews take us? Most families have members who have reached 70 or 80 years of age. These people can guide us back to near the beginning of this century. But living witnesses are not the only people whose testimonies should be admitted to our pool of genealogical resources. Biographies, autobiographies, newspaper interviews, and other eyewitness accounts recorded in the past can guide researchers back hundreds of years in time. Verification of these accounts is required; however, most of them contain significant amounts of accurate information.

Interviews can unearth family stories, myths, traditions and legends that extend a family's history back in time one or two centuries. Some of the information in these stories may be false, but wedged between the false or distorted elements may be facts that are known only to the storytellers or preservers of tales in the family. All evidence, written and oral, must be tested for accuracy so that the untrue or exaggerated can be discarded, while the facts that survive scrutiny can be added to the family's legacy.

Before selecting people to interview, family historians must decide what it is they wish to learn. Analyzing pedigree charts and family group records, beginning with the researcher's family and expanding the review to ancestors and descendants, will produce a list of people about whom some facts are missing: parents' names, event dates and places, occupations, residences, life-changing events, glimpses into personal life, descriptions of life in the past, even health information. A list of missing facts will help the genealogist decide whom to interview and the questions to ask.

After the researcher examines the list of facts, he or she should write questions that would motivate the person being interviewed to provide the required information. In a few cases this is best accomplished with a question that requires a yes or no answer or an answer containing specific details: "When was Uncle Wesley born?" "What was Grandpa's occupation?" Most of the time the questioner wants the subject to expand his or her answer so that context can be developed that will aid in assessing the accuracy or value of the answer: What do you remember about Uncle Wesley's birth? Did you ever watch Grandpa Miller at work? The length of the list does not matter. If the researcher has many questions, more than one interview can be scheduled.

With a completed list of questions, the family historian should decide which family member, family friend, employer, teacher or neighbor would be the best witness. Who was there when it happened or who knew the participants in events best? More ideas follow in Tip 10.

About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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