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Get to Know Your Parents

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51 Birch Street

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"The triumph of 51 Birch Street is that, as you’re driving home past fast-food joints and strip malls, you’ll be thinking about your own life as well."

– Tricia Olszewski, WASHINGTON CITY PAPER

Get to Know Your Parents

Videotape a Family History Interview

51 Birch Street director Doug Block talks about how to gain a new appreciation for your parents by videotaping a family history interview

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Aside from making 51 Birch Street, by far the best thing I ever did to get to know my parents better was to shoot family history interviews.  I did separate ones with both my dad and mom about 10 years ago, and learned more about them in a few hours than in the entire first 42 years of my life.

It was ridiculously simple, too.  I set my camera on a tripod, sat them down in a comfortable chair where they were lit well by a window, and began at the beginning…

“What’s your earliest memory?”
“Do you remember your grandparents?”
“When did they come to America?”
“Tell me about your parents.”

Maybe it was the formality of the interview process that allowed me to eventually ask questions I normally wouldn’t feel free to ask.  And I think my parents were secretly thrilled that their memories were being captured for posterity.  But once we got going they were both very much at ease.  And it was utterly amazing what I learned, especially once we turned to the subject of my parents marriage and the early years of our own family. 

When preparing to videotape a family history interview of your own with one of your parents, here are a few other tips you might want to keep in mind:

You’ll want to prepare questions beforehand, but once the interview begins you’ll probably find that you rarely need to consult them.  Just go with the conversational flow and you’ll be fine.

Set the frame fairly close-up, basically from the shoulders to the top of the head.  Give them just enough for wiggle room, but the biggest mistake most people make is getting too wide.  You’ll want to see their expressions, that’s the key. 

Before you begin shooting, bring out an old photo album and ask about the people in the photos.  It’s a great way to get them in a reminiscing frame of mind, and makes for a good conversational ice-breaker.

Most of these tips for shooting a family history videotape apply to audio tape, as well.  If you don’t have a camera, or if your parent is camera shy, use an audio tape recorder, instead.  Find a quiet spot, get the mic close, double-check that you’re recording and let it flow.  It’s not the recording format that counts, it’s finding a context to ask your parents about their lives, and then preserving their memories for posterity.

As usual, you can troll the web to find more useful tips about making family history interviews.  Though it’s geared to audio interviews, the Association of Personal Historians has 12 tips for interviewing relatives, and it’s a great starting point. 

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