Whenever I give a presentation to beginning genealogists, I tell them that the first step in any genealogy project is to talk to the oldest member of your extended family and really pump them for information. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard researchers say “I wish I had listened when my grandma talked about her life”. People have information that you cannot get from documents. Yes, you can usually find out when someone was born, but it is very unlikely, unless the dad got completely out of hand with joy and ended up being arrested, that you will know how people felt about that birth or what that birth meant to the family. The same is true of marriages. You can imply that the bride’s parents didn’t approve of the groom if you find a marriage record in a “Gretna Green” kind of locale, or if the parents didn’t attend the wedding, but you won’t necessarily know why they felt that way. This is where your human resources come in.
Now, if you have a particularly chatty aunt or grandmother, or uncle or grandfather for that matter, you can just set up your recording device and let them go but it does help to have a few pointers in mind so you get not just gossip and random bits of information, although for me those were always the best, but also facts that may be pertinent to your research. There are ways of going about this. I found a very good article by Juliana Smith on the Ancestry Learning Centre about how to get the interesting details but also to get information that may be helpful in your search.
She suggests questions like: “Who were your neighbours when you were growing up?” or “What landmarks do you remember from your childhood neighbourhood?” Not only will questions like this open up the door to childhood memories, but when researching families, it is sometimes useful to know who was living around them (for example, if you can’t find your family in a census index, maybe you can find the neighbours, or use the names of the neighbours to verify that you have the right family in a census record or directory). The article contains other very interesting ways of asking questions to get dual purpose answers. There are also some very good books in our genealogy collection about interviewing family members. Some titles are Oral History Workshop by Cynthia Hart. It contains information on how to do interviews with family as well as lists of questions. There are also a number of very good resources available on the internet. There is a list of suggested questions at Louisiana State University.
It was the table chat about my relations (some might have called it gossip) that got me hooked on family history. The stories I gathered from my grandmother and my aunts and uncles could not have been found in any archive or library. For me, this is family history.