Family History: Phase II preparation—Gather, interview, and research

TypeBy Barry J. Ewell

Gather, Catalog, Clues, and Questions. Once you have the file set up, gather together what you currently have associated with the person.

Assume you know nothing. You are the detective seeking to understand what you have and what your next steps will be. You are simply gathering information. This is not a time to edit and decide what is or is not important. It is the first round; as you move beyond this stage and begin to interview others, you will uncover new artifacts, other individuals to interview, and places to visit. Start by doing the following:

Gather artifacts you have in your possession that belonged to or reference the individual. (These could be photos, letters, receipts, journals, and so forth.)

Develop a spreadsheet to catalog each artifact and identify persons of interest. The spreadsheets will become more and more important as you conduct your research, because it tells where you’ve been and where you’re going and supplies the details for providing necessary citing and documentation when writing your history.

Review and catalog each artifact. Look for any clues and write them down. You can decide later whether to do further research. Conduct a “Good Glance.” Look at the artifacts close enough to know what you have. The following list is an example of what to look for in various types of artifacts:

  • Photos: Inscriptions, people, signs, and dates
  • Unpublished (cards, letters, and journals): To and from names, topics, and dates
  • Memorabilia (brochures, tickets): Places, events, dates, and notes
  • Newspaper Clippings: Names, associations, and dates

Write down any questions or thoughts that come into your mind as you review the material. You can organize later.

File the artifacts in the appropriate folder.

Make a list of family, friends, and acquaintances who you think knew the person. List the person’s name, address, telephone, and relationship to your person of interest. The list will come both from your personal knowledge and from clues you gain from reviewing the artifacts.

Gathering Information and Materials. Start finding pertinent information and material to support your writing of the personal history by looking for and evaluating the following:
Diaries: A regularly kept diary is the most valuable source of personal history.

Letters and emails: Letters go two ways—to and from. Letters to you provide important information because the writer often responds to things you told them. As you interview family, friends, and acquaintances, ask to see if any correspondence has been kept that was sent to them from your person of interest.

Documents and artifacts: Papers and objects that are important in our lives ought to be saved, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses or certificates, missionary certificates, awards, diplomas, drawings, paintings, poems, and talks. More bulky but still impor¬tant are artifacts like sewn items, carvings, jewelry, and other handicrafts. Official government records are valuable, as are church records.

Photographs: Beyond simply showing the faces of ancestors, pictures ought to capture typical work and play situations. Labeling dates and names on our photographs is a must. The same goes for our digital files too.

Tape and video recordings: Recording voices of children year by year is a great way to chronicle their lives. Dictated life stories preserve not only the story but the voice of the storyteller.

Recollections of others: Written or tape-recorded, other people’s memories of your subject can provide a wealth of insight. People to contact for the person of interest can include parents, children, brothers and sisters, teachers or students, employers, employees, neighbors, close personal friends, local church lead¬ers, visiting teaching partners, doctors, and former classmates or roommates.

Life sketches and autobiographies: I have come across a number of life sketches and autobiographies about my ancestors that range from a few pages to ten pages. I find them to be very shallow, missing feelings and experiences. Full chapters could be written on their stages of life and topics such as parenting, work experiences, religious work, family roots and background, influential people, life philosophy, and humorous episodes. These small life sketches provide a great starting point for further research and interviews to get a fuller, more complete picture of the person’s life.

Your memories: Use photos, documents, and so forth to jar the memories of those you will be interviewing. If you are researching your own history, look through the family photo album with a tape recorder in hand and record the thoughts and stories as you think about who is in that fuzzy picture and why they’re important. What do you remember about the place and time? Jar your memory with other things: visit your old school, listen to old records or tapes, see movies that were filmed about the years you grew up, or brainstorm with siblings or old friends.

Gathering and Cataloging Example: Mary Jones’s Sack of Odds and Ends
After Mom’s passing, I received some of her personal affects. I remember finding photos, articles, brochures from a trip, past checks and receipts, and so forth in the bottoms of drawers, tops of closets, and every place imaginable. I put those items in a sack, brought them home, and forgot about them.

When I was ready to start my research, I rediscovered the sack I had put away and spread the contents out on the kitchen table. I made two spreadsheets to help me sort through the mate¬rial. The spreadsheets helped me organize the early phases of my research. I was able to begin building a mental picture of activities and experiences by time periods, identify people who might have insights and artifacts relating to my mother’s life, identify topics and questions I wanted to discuss with different individuals, identify gaps for which I did not have information, and iden¬tify areas where I could conduct background research to help tell the story.

Once I finished going through the sack, I reviewed other artifacts I had gathered, such as our family photo album, items in shoe boxes, and so on. The following are examples of the spreadsheet I set up. Note: When I develop the spreadsheets, I like to pose questions as column headings.

Mary’s Artifacts List—Sample
What do you have?Describe what you have.What clues or ques­tions do you have? (Inscriptions, people in picture, and so on)Are any further actions needed?
PhotoMom and Dad’s wedding photo.On back of picture, list of persons in pic­ture (Name 1, Name 2, Name 3, Name 4, Name 5, Name 6, Name 7)Find name and address of persons in photos. Set up time to interview.
PhotoWanda and Mom standing next to life pre­server with name of ship.Mom is on cruise.Ask Wanda about photo and trip.
PhotoUnknown boy with dog in early 1900s.Who is this? Family?Show and ask Mom’s sisters if they know about the photo.
Birthday CardBirthday card given to Mom by (name).Relationship? Shared thoughts?Follow up with person to learn more of the rela­tionship between person and mom.
News articleObituary of Mom’s dad (name)Lists surviving family, residence of children and brothers and sisters.Find name and address of Grand­pa’s brothers or sisters or surviving spouses. Set time to interview.
US PassportMom’s passport from 0000-0000Where Mom traveled and dates.Look for bro­chures, tickets, photos of trip. Ask friends who went with Mom and if they have photos.


Mary’s Family, Friends, and Acquaintances List
Who is the person?What is their relationship?Address and telephoneNotes for follow-up
NameFriendLas VegasAsk (name) about photo and trip.
NameSisterSpanish ForkShow old photos and see if they can help identify. Ask about other family artifacts.
NameSisterLas VegasShow old photos and see if they can help identify. Ask about other family artifacts.
NameSisterSpringvilleShow old photos and see if they can help identify. Ask about other family artifacts.