Compiled by Holly-Cutting Baker, Amy Kotkin, and Margaret
Yocom, Washington D.C., Folklife Program, Office of American
and Folklife Studies, Smithsonian Institution, 1978, 6 pages,
Government Document SI 1.20:F21.
During the past three years the staff members of the Smithsonian
Institution's Family Folklore Project have interviewed hundreds
of persons about their family folklore. To prepare for these
interviews we drew upon our academic backgrounds in folklore
and American studies and upon our personal backgrounds as members
of families. In addition, we reviewed the major instruction
guides in genealogy, oral history, family history, and folklore
fieldwork. Although these publications were all helpful in someway,
no single book was completely adequate since family folklore
combines aspects of all the above disciplines. Over time we
have developed guidelines and questions that have proved successful
for us; we hope that the following suggestions will be helpful
to anyone who wishes to collect the folklore of his or her own
Before you begin:
Family folklore is not static. It exists only as part of the
day to day living of a family. To separate it from this natural
context would be to rob it of its vitality and its existence
as folklore; the material thus gathered would become simply
a report about family folklore and not a collection of family
folklore. It is essential to remember that the story itself
is as important as the information it conveys. This is the essential
distinction between family folklore and the closely related
disciplines of genealogy and family history. The following suggestions
are designed to help you focus on these folkloric aspects of
your family's past.
A word of warning. Because family folklore exists only within
the context of a living family, it is constantly evolving. Each
generation will forget or alter the lore that it has received;
on the other hand, that same generation will add new verbal
lore and new traditions. This creative aspect of family folklore
affects the researcher in two ways. First, no matter how hard
you try, you will never record the entire body of your family's
folklore since there will never be a moment in which it will
be totally static. Don't despair. Record what you can and encourage
other family members to do the same. Just think of collecting
family folklore as a pastime for which you he an infinite supply
of raw material close at hand. The second way in which the creative
aspect of family folklore affects the researcher is in his time
orientation. The family folklorist cannot be so absorbed with
preserving the past that he neglects to record the present.
Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open. A tradition does not have
to be old to be worth recording. In fact, a good part of any
family's tradition is ephemeral and may not last long enough
to pass from one generation to another. Collecting family folklore
is one case in which too much is better than too little. Tapes
can be edited and transcripts can be discarded, but the tradition,
story or expression that you neglect to record today may exist
only in memory next week.
As self-appointed family folklorist you now have two tasks
ahead of you; to learn your family's folklore and to record
it for others to enjoy.
Note-taking and tape recording are the usual means of recording
family folklore. The tape recorder is the means of choice. Writing
during an interview or family event has a number of disadvantages.
Most people find note-taking to be both tedious and difficult.
It is hard to maintain a conversation or participate actively
in the ongoing activities. Visual contact is lost. A complete,
accurate account of the story--especially if it is long and
detailed--is difficult to obtain. Although the words may be
written down, the subtleties of the performance are inevitably
Although both you and your informant might be uneasy and uncomfortable
with the tape recorder, you will soon become accustomed to its
presence. A small casette machine with a built-in omni-directional
microphone will give the best results. It is easy to use and
so inconspicuous that its presence will soon be forgotten. A
ninety minute cassette (forty-five minutes per side) is a good
choice since it is economical, unlikely to tangle, and long
enough to record substantial segments of an interview without
The microphone should be played so that all voices, including
yours, can be picked up. Run a test before you begin the actual
interview and adjust the machine accordingly. The end of a two-hour
interview is no time to discover that you've forgotten to push
the record button or that the volume control was incorrectly
adjusted! Read carefully any instructions that come with the
particular tape recorder that you are using.
As far as possible all extraneous noise should be eliminated.
Turn off the radio, close the window, move away from the window
fan. A few minutes spent finding the proper spot for the tape
recorder can save you many hours when it comes time to transcribe
the interview and you struggle to distinguish grandma's voice
from the roar of a passing airplane. The recorder should also
be placed where it will not be disturbed during the interview
and where you will have easy access to it when it becomes necessary
to change tapes.
Although not as essential as a tape recorder, a camera is a
useful piece of equipment. It provides a visual record of the
interview and the informant. It can also be used to copy any
documentary records that the informant might offer, such as
photographs or scrapbooks.
Who should you start with? Your oldest relative? The one you
feel most at ease with? No. The place to begin is with yourself.
You are just as much a bearer of your family's traditions as
any member of your family. Use yourself as an informant and
ask yourself the questions that follow on pages 6-8. You may
be surprised at how much you know about some areas and how little
about others. It is very likely that you will know more about
one side of the family than another, for instance. Use your
answers as a starting point for questioning other family members.
The best questions come from a well-informed person. Once you
have collected family folklore from yourself, try to remember
family structure. Who are your relatives? Which ones are most
likely to have information and be willing to share it? Who gets
along with whom? What topics are likely to be sensitive? These
are all essential questions that you can begin to answer yourself.
The first outside person that you interview should be someone
with whom you feel very comfortable. Interviewing is not easy
and you would do well to get your introduction to it in the
presence of a friendly face. A parent or sibling might be a
good choice. Young children often have great success with grandparents.
As you continue your interviewing you will pick up clues that
will help you find potential narrators: "You should talk
to Uncle Joe about that," or "Aunt Jane is a much
better storyteller than I am." Whenever possible ask directly
for sources: "Can you tell me who might know more about
that?" As you become more and more involved with the search
you will meet relatives that you never even knew you had! Don't
neglect non-relatives, either. Your grandfather's best friend
may be able to tell you things about him that no family member
would know. Don't overlook other members of the household who
were not relatives, such as nursemaids or long-term boarders.
Try not to be misled by terms of address. Aunt, uncle, sister,
brother and cousin are especially troublesome words since they
can indicate respect, affection and brotherhood as easily as
blood or marriage relationships. And although they won't be
much help as sources of information on family folklore, don't
forget family pets since they can frequently be found as characters
in family stories.
The most productive family folklore interviews are those that
take place in a natural context for the reasons explained at
the beginning of this guide: family folklore is a living part
of a family and cannot be successfully separated from the everyday
activities of that family. This can present problems since it
will be impossible for you to be present during every naturally
occurring folklore event. You should make use of such opportunities
whenever possible, however. Some common natural contexts are
family dinners, picnics, reunions and holidays. These are the
times at which families would tell stories whether or not you
are there with your tape recorder. Under these circumstances
you will probably not even have to conduct an interview--just
adjust the recorder, relax, and participate as you ordinarily
If no spontaneous natural context seems to be available you
will have to rely on what is called an induced natural context.
The distinction is straightforward. Instead of waiting for a
family dinner to occur in the normal course of events, you initiate
one. This approach has the added advantage of giving you a degree
of control over the situation. For example, you can invite specific
relatives who interact well with each other. Try serving foods
that you know will bring back memories from the past.
The group interview context, whether natural or induced, has
one major characteristic that makes it extremely fruitful. The
interaction that occurs as a matter of course serves to spark
the memories of the participants. One story leads into another,
one interpretation elicits cries of "but that's not really
the way it happened at all!" The end result of such an
interview will differ greatly from private interviews with the
Private interview can also be either natural or induced. If
grandma begins to talk to you about her journey to this country
while you are washing the supper dishes, fine--unfortunately,
you probably won't be prepared with a tape recorder. If you
wish to privately interview a relative, try not to do so under
formal circumstances. Suggest some activity that will allow
you to maintain a conversation easily but will help keep the
session natural and low key--going for a walk, sewing, baking.
If you know beforehand that a particular activity is usually
a time for storytelling, schedule your interview to coincide
with that event. Familiar surroundings and routine activities
will also help to distract the informant from the fact that
he or she is being interviewed and will lessen the unsettling
impact of the tape recorder.
Every interview that you do will be unique. The questions on
pages 6-8 will supply some uniformity, although you will probably
be selective in using them. The following brief suggestions
should be helpful in most circumstances.
1. Ask evocative questions. Nothing can kill an interview faster
than a long series of questions that require only yes or no
2. Face up to the fact that there will be some information
that you will not get. You may be the wrong sex or age. A relative
may simply not trust you with sensitive data. If you feel you
must have the missing material you may be able to solicit the
help of another relative or friend as an interviewer.
3. Be aware that role switching will occur. Rather than being
just a son or daughter you are becoming an interrogator. Both
you and your informant may feel uneasy in these new roles. A
low key approach in a natural setting should help relieve some
of the discomfort.
4. Show interest. Encourage your informants as much as possible.
Interject remarks whenever appropriate. Take an active part
in the conversation without dominating it. Learn to be a good
listener as well as a good questioner.
5. Know what questions you want to ask, but don't be afraid
to let your informant go off on a tangent. He or she might just
touch on subjects of interest that you never thought to ask
6. Never turn off the tape recorder unless asked to. Not only
does it break the conversation, such action suggests that you
think some of your informant's material is not worth recording.
7. Use props whenever possible. Documents, letters, photo albums,
scrapbooks, home movies and other family heirlooms can all be
profitably used to stimulate memories.
8. Be sensitive to the needs of family members. Schedule your
sessions at a convenient time. Older people tire easily; cut
the interview off at the first sign of fatigue. Don't slight
family members who show interest in your project. Interview
them, even if you have reason to believe their material will
be of minimal value. Each interview should be a pleasant and
rewarding experience for all parties involved.
9. If possible, prepare some sort of written report for the
family as a tangible result of their participation. Remember
to save all of your tapes, notes and any other documentation
that you have accumulated (and you will!). Label everything
with names, dates and places. Ideally, all tapes should be indexed
and transcribed. You will be more conscientious about documentation
if you place yourself in the position of your great-grandchild
who, many decades in the future, will be using your project
as a source for his reconstruction.
A question of ethics:
Most of your relatives will be delighted by your new found
interest in collecting family folklore. Some will undoubtably
wonder if you've gone slightly mad. Unfortunately, a few may
be uncooperative and even hostile. Because of the personal nature
of the folklore that you will be collecting, you should be very
careful to protect the privacy and rights of all family members.
Be honest about your intent from the very beginning. Explain
your reasons for doing the research. Is it a school assignment?
Do you simply want to learn more about your family? Do you plan
to publish your findings? The ultimate disposition of the collection
may affect their willingness to talk about certain subjects.
You may find it difficult to explain what family folklore is
and why you want to record it. Your relatives will most likely
equate your research with genealogy and family history. No harm
will be done if you explain your research in those terms since
the areas are so interrelated.
Don't make promises you can't or don't intend to keep. If you
say that you will erase part of a tape, do so, even if it means
losing some important information. Respect confidences and privacy.
Let your informants see anything that will be published before
it is too late to alter the manuscript. The intimate nature
of family folklore places burdens on the researcher that are
restrictive and sometimes frustrating. Fortunately, the bulk
of your collection will be non-controversial. One last ground
rule: Never, under any circumstance, record secretly. There
is never any justification for such dishonesty. Such behavior
can only result in bad feelings within the family.
Please do not be discouraged by all the do's and don't's that
we have outlined in these pages. Once you have begun collecting
your own family's folklore you will realize that the guidelines
are based on common sense and lots of practice. Vary them to
suit your own family circumstances. Improve them with our blessing
and encouragement. And above all, enjoy yourself, your family
and your folklore.
A Possible Questionnaire:
Every family is unique. Every folklore fieldworker has his
or her own special interest and style of interviewing. Because
of this diversity, we feel strongly that no single set of questions
will successfully elicit family folklore from all families.
The most useful questions will be those that you develop through
your knowledge of yourself and your family. For your initial
efforts you may find the following list of questions helpful.
Just remember that they are meant to be suggestive, not absolute.
Pick and choose among them as you see fit. By all means change
the wording to suit your own situation and personality.
1. What do you know about your family surname? Its origin?
Its meaning? Did it undergo change coming from the Old Country
to the United States? Are there stories about the change?
2. Are there any traditional first names, middle names or nicknames
in your family? Is there a naming tradition, such as always
giving the firstborn son the name of his paternal grandfather?
3. Can you sort out the traditions in your current family according
to the branches of the larger family from which they have come?
Does the overall tradition of a specific grandparent seem to
4. What stories have come down to you about your parents? Grandparents?
More distant ancestors? How have these relatives described their
lives to you? What have you learned from them about their childhood,
adolescence, schooling, marriage, work, religion, political
activity, recreation? Are they anxious or reluctant to discuss
the past? Do their memories tend to cluster about certain topics
or time periods and avoid others? Are there certain things in
your family history that you would like to know, but no one
will tell you? Do various relatives tell the same stories in
different ways? How do these versions differ?
5. Do you have a notorious or infamous character in your family's
past? Do you relish stories about him/her? Do you feel that
the infamy of the ancestor may have grown as stories passed
down about him/her have been elaborated? Would you like to think
your ancestors were pirates even though down deep you know that
they were honest, hard-working people?
6. How did your parents, grandparents, and other relatives,
come to meet and marry? Are there family stories of lost love,
jilted brides, unusual courtships, arranged marriages, elopements,
7. Have any historical events affected your family? For example,
how did your family survive the Depression? Did conflict over
some national event such as the Civil War or Vietnam cause a
serious break in family relationships?
8. Are there any stories in your family about how a great fortune
was lost or almost (but not quite) made? Do you believe them?
Are these incidents laughed about or deeply regretted? If a
fortune was made, who was responsible and how was it achieved?
9. What expressions are used in your family? Did they come
from specific incidents? Are there stories which explain their
origin? Is a particular member of the family especially adept
at creating expressions?
10. How are holidays celebrated in your family? What holidays
are most important--national, religious or family? What innovations
has your family made in holiday celebrations? Has your family
created entirely new holidays?
11. Does your family hold reunions? How often? When? Where?
Who is invited? Who comes? Who are the organizers and hosts?
What occurs during the reunion? Are there traditional foods,
customs, activities? Are stories and photographs exchanged?
Are records (oral, written, visual) kept? By whom?
12. Have any recipes been preserved in your family from past
generations? What was their origin? How were they passed down--by
word of mouth, by observation, by written recipes? Are they
still in use today? When? By whom? Does grandmother's apple
pie taste as good now that it's made by her granddaughter?
13. What other people (friends, household help, etc.) have
been incorporated into your family? When? Why? Were these people
given family title such as aunt or cousin? Did they participate
fully in family activities?
14. Is there a family cemetery or burial plot? Who is buried
with whom? Why? Who makes burial place decisions? If there are
grave markers, what type of information is recorded on them?
15. Does your family have any heirlooms, objects of sentimental
or monetary value that have been handed down? What are they?
Are there stories connected with them? Do you know their origin
and line of passage through the generations? If they pass to
you, will you continue the tradition, sell the objects, or give
them to museums?
16. Does your family have photo albums, scrapbooks, slides,
home movies? Who created them? Whose pictures are contained
in them? Whose responsibility is their upkeep? When are they
displayed? To whom? Are they specially arranged and edited?
Does their appearance elicit commentary? What kind? By whom?
Is the showing of these images a happy occasion?
Reprinted with permission of the Office of American and
Folklife Studies, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.