Creating your family story is much more than obtaining DNA information. That’s why we encourage you to spend time talking to family members, the principal resource for family history. They are the ones who can tell you about their childhood and their interaction with direct and extended family members that can impact your efforts. One of the most direct ways of gathering information is to conduct a family survey with a designated set of questions that allows you to compare responses and begin building the family narrative.
Start by developing a set of questions for multiple generations because each generation has something to contribute through a unique lens. For example, asking the younger generation what they would most like to know about their ancestors informs your inquiry of older generations and could lead you on a search you might otherwise overlook. Asking the elder most generations what they want future generations to understand and remember about the family and certain individuals specifically will enrich your account of the family story.
Here are some other tips for conducting a family survey.
Start with what you know. Take time to write down what you know. List as much of your genealogy as you can. Identify where your parents and grandparents were born and any other pertinent information to the narrative you are trying to build. Once you identify what you know, you can begin to explore what you don’t know and resolve how to get the information you seek.
Give family members a heads-up. Drop and email or make phone calls to let family members know you will be conducting a family survey. Most members will be cooperative, but some may want time to prepare or may prefer not to participate. Respect their decisions and include them in your dissemination of the final product.
Let family members know your goals. Exploring family history and sometimes family secrets can make some family members uncomfortable. Let everyone know how you intend to use the information you are gathering. Are you adding details to the family tree, writing a family history or simply satisfying your curiosity?
When developing questions, know the answers you are seeking. What do you want to learn about a relative, time period or historical events of the era? For example, if the generational cohort being interviewed lived during World War II, ask if they remember which relatives served and in what branch?
Ask if you can circle back with additional questions. Family interviews often lead to new information and additional questions. Once you have interviewed all the members you can and compare answers, be sure family members are comfortable with you coming back with additional questions or clarifications.
Share what you learn. Family members may not have your persistence in seeking out family history, but they are usually curious about what you learn. Share what you learn and celebrate you family with everyone who shares your lineage.
Family surveys are not just a way of gaining new insights into your family history, they provide an opportunity to get to know members from multiple perspectives with the shared understanding that you are bound by a unique legacy.