Back to Basics: Conducting Family Interviews

Most childhood memories involve listening to tall-tales at the feet of our older family members. As you look towards the family for source documents do not overlook the stories that may contain important clues.

Interviewing a family member can be a simple process of taking notes during family gatherings to the more complex project of videotaping. No matter what the approach, the most important part of interviewing is to get the information documented.

copyright 2011 LaDonna Garner

Recorded family stories make great clues.

So what do you need to get up and going on your interviewing?
Not much. Consider this tool list for the upcoming holiday gatherings:

  • notebook & pencil
  • digital recorder & batteries
  • video camera & battery
  • camera & batteries
  • 10 to 12 assorted questions you wish to ask each individual
  • take along a few photos or family artifacts for sharing and jogging memories

The questions you pose to perspective interviewees may be specific regarding them or the  family. But do set aside those questions when the interviewee is very forthcoming with stories and other details. You just never know where those stories will lead you!

Below are two websites that offer suggestion lists for typical questions you may wish to include on your list. No matter what questions you ask or how you record the answers,  most important is that you save a piece of family folklore before it slips away to time.

Story Arts, Collecting Family Stories may be for kids but I find it pretty useful for adults too!

Family Folklife Interview has a nice listing of possible questions to consider for interviews.

Leaf’n a family legacy,

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Back to Basics: Start with You

During a recent genealogy course it became apparent how online databases have changed the way beginners enter the hobby of genealogy. Microfilm readers are losing their status as record viewers as many researchers opt to use online digitized records. And who can blame them? Searching from home in your jammies makes genealogy very appealing. But then again, it also skips over much of the research process beginners would benefit.

So in an effort to help some recent newbies to this process, I’ll be posting tips of genealogy basics that will correspond to references you may consider having on your bookshelf. I hope you follow along and join in these discussions.


Begin with what you know.


Start with YOU!

Ready to delve into your family tree? It’s easy, just begin with what you already know. Using a notebook or blank family group sheets, write down the vital statistics of yourself then each family member. Vital statistics are the birth, marriage, divorce, and death information making us each unique. If it makes it easier to record, begin your page with your parents’ information then for siblings and yourself.

There are a few standards that help us complete a full collection of these family details:

Write each family member’s name in full by using their GIVEN (first name), Middle, and Surname (last name). ex. John Robert Smith

Write each female’s name in full according to their maiden name.

ex. Amanda Eliza Cummings. Do notNot her married name of Smith.

Place nicknames in quotations to make it clear they were not their birth names.

ex. John Robert “Filbie” Smith

When noting dates, follow in the format of DAY MONTH YEAR.

ex. 5 December 1896 or 5 Dec. 1896

This format alleviates misinterpretation when dates occur in numerals or in other countries with differing format preferences.

If you know where each of their vital information took place, note those details as well by their city, county, and state.

ex. Jersey City, Philip County, Maryland

When you have tapped your brain beyond return (smile), look around your house for items that can help fill in your missing information.

Do you have a newspaper obituary from Grandma Phila’s funeral?

Just where has your dad’s high school yearbook been hiding?

Take a look around and gather documents and references your family has tucked away for safe keeping. They will be very helpful on your next step in this family tree mystery.

Do not be discouraged if you find many unknown vitals regarding family members in your recollection. This is where contacting family members for family documents and oral histories will begin to help to fill the blanks and prepare you for researching the unknown.

Leaf’n thru the steps,

Today’s References:

See Tony Burrough’s reference Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree, p. 133-145.

Blank family group sheets can be found in numerous styles and free online. Here’s a great starting point to choose forms for your particular needs. Cyndi’s List (forms).

Up next post: Conducting Family Interviews.

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Support Local Projects & Save Local History

This is a proud moment for our Mt. Zion Cemetery Board as we’ve sustained 10 years of restoring a local cemetery, Mount Zion Cemetery, Festus, Missouri to a respectful state. What started out as my passion for genealogy has turned into nearly a decade of returning pride to our local community. I cannot thank the local supporters enough for their commitments to aid the cemetery’s well being.

I’ll post more on this cemetery & others as I go but with this blog post, I wish to leave you with one tip: Get involved with your passion & make history happen!

Copyright 2011 LaDonna Garner

Mount Zion Cemetery cleanup is very fulfilling!

Our next event is coming up & you are invited to join the support effort through donations, assisting the raffles, and enjoying the evenings company!

Contact me for dinner reservations or other questions regarding this event:

Mount Zion Cemetery Benefit Dinner & Silent Auction
Saturday, September 10, 2011
held at American Legion, 849 American Legion Drive, Festus, Mo.

“Celebrating 10 years of a community effort
in preserving Mount Zion Cemetery”

Cocktail Hour (cash bar) 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Dinner Service 6:30 p.m.

Dinner Menu
Sliced Roast Beef & Turkey
Potato Casserole
Glazed Carrots
Assorted desserts
Tea & coffee            Cost: $25 per guest

Silent Auction

  • Silent Auction opens at 5:00 p.m.
  • Items to be auctioned will be on display before and during the dinner.
  • Raffle tickets for a cash drawing during the Silent Auction can be purchased throughout the evening.

Auction proceeds will benefit the Mount Zion Cemetery, Festus, Mo.

“The Destiny of Our Future is the Preservation of Our Past”

Leaf’n & lov’n local history,

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Working & Running & Stressing “Oh My”: Scheduling in Genealogy Time

This summer was likely as busy for you as it was for me. And sadly, the coming month appears to be just as busy. But don’t fret, you can still make some headway in your genealogy project.

First things first: If you cannot work on your genealogy on a regular bases, organization should be your top priority.

Dedicate a table or desk for genealogy. Having a place where your genealogy can “hang out” will enable you to return to your last work session without much effort.

Setup a staging system. Use stackable or hanging file sorters and mark each for different stages of your research.

Copyright 2011 LaDonna Garner

This filing system has many stages to help me keep organized.

For example:

  • top sorter: In Box (Newly found source documents, family interviews, etc.)
  • middle sorter: Research Log (Keep track of what you have found to avoid duplicating research efforts.)
  • next sorter: Family Tree Software (Add your source information to the family tree database.)
  • bottom sorter: To be filed (Photocopy/scan source documents for research use and file the original for safe keeping.)

To keep your staging system simple & organized:

Date your research notes from each session at the repository or online databases.

Date and paperclip the citations with each document before adding it to the Inbox file. Knowing where you left off is essential to keeping your thoughts in order when returning to your genealogy desk.

An oldie but goodie reference, The Weekend Genealogist by Marcia Yannizze Melnyk, has additional time saving tips to keep your genealogy from being abandoned.

Practicing what I preach, I’m off to dive into some much needed research while I have some unexpected free time.

Leaf’n through thick & thin.

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Snailmail still works for family research

I received a call last night from an older family member regarding a letter from a family researcher. The researcher requested information to determine if her family was part of our family. So while I make contact with this possible cousin, I’m looking at how one can make the best attempt at making a family connection through the old fashion way, snail mail.

No matter if you know the individuals or if you’re taking a chance through the telephone directory, your letter for requesting family information must do it’s job the first time. What is that job? Its job is to peak the contacted party’s interest to return a response.

Copyright 2011 LaDonna Garner

Don't give up on the power of snail mail!

Think of these few questions before you stamp that envelope:

  1. Did you clearly state the family names (given, maiden & surname) that may be the connection to this other family?
  2. If you know, did you include vital information such as birth and death dates to help place the individuals mentioned in a given generation? The person you are contacting may be several generations before or after your generation of interest.
  3. Have you added the known locality and residence of each individual mentioned? Although families did migrate and lose touch, many families have an idea where distant family are located or family folklore that can help narrow the connection quickly.
  4. Don’t fill the letter with too many questions. People are annoyed by chain letters and many may react to your long questionnaire in the same manner. Keep this initial contact brief with perhaps 5 or fewer questions.
  5. Are you positive this may be your family member? Consider including a few color photocopies of family photos, a family grouping if possible. Don’t forget to name and date the photocopies.
  6. And last but not least, don’t forget to add numerous avenues to contact you. Older family members are most comfortable with replying to letters by mail or telephone. Younger family members are likely to email or use social networks.

Overall, be direct with your intentions and offer enough information so the contacted can respond fully and without missing a family connection. In my case, the requester gave all avenues of contact and I chose to use email to respond quickly to the request.

Leaf’n you with best wishes in your responses,

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Dusting off the ol’ Box of Photos

Everyone has them, a box or two of old photos needing attention. Many may even need mending. Here’s a few tips to get those photos out of the box, handled safely, and introduced into the family tree.

SORTING (organizing and notating)
Set aside a day of the week or month with a dedicated table to organize your photos. Unsorted photos can be challenging. So decide which may be best for you to tackle the chore:

  • by person
  • by family grouping
  • chronologically by decade or time period

You’ll need a few supplies: archival photo boxes, a soft lint-free cloth, a soft leaded pencil, a scanner, and photo sleeves.

Copyright 2011 LaDonna Garner

Notate along the front/back margins.


There are two options to notating the photographs: on the photograph or on the protector the photograph will be housed. Notation on the photographs should be done with a photo pencil of soft lead often found in art supply stores. Never use ink pens. Mark photographs in the margins along the front or along the margins on the back using light pressure on a hard, clean surface.

Scanning photos will aid the longevity of your families images and enable you to share them. It’s also a great way to protect photos, damaged or not, leaving the originals clear of wear and tear through repeated handling.

Saving the images in file names that are short in description (less than 10 characters without spacing) will enable you to relocate easier for future use. Save them in tif and jpg format. Tif will allow for less degradation of the digital images and jpg will make for shareable use in emails, online groups, and other programs. Make backup copies and share with family members and put one away in a safe deposit box.

Setting the scanner properties to 300 dpi and true color (or similar settings) is a good overall choice for limited storage size and quality.

Separate out the damaged photos so they can be handled with care. Also separate out photos that contain tape, glue residue, or need to be specially removed from album pages or glass. These will need special attention to not destroy additional photos in your collection. These should also be scanned or photographed prior to having them restored as a precaution.

You may feel the urge to tape up the fraying edges of photos or glue together photos that have been torn apart. I suggest you purchase archival photo sleeves such as these at Gaylord. Clear sleeves offer a static cling effect to keep the photo in the sleeve and allow for viewing without repeated removal lessening additional damage. Choose a size that offers the photo room to slip into and remove easily. Lightly clean away dust and fingerprints with a soft, lint free cloth. Then tuck them into a photo box for organizing and safe keeping. Photos needing to see a specialist for severe damage or tape & glue removal can especially make use of the sleeves for protection.

Copyright 2011 LaDonna Garner

use archival sleeves & soft-lead pencils

Negatives deserve just as much special attention as the photos. You can find negative archival sleeves in varying sizes in photo shops or online. Many have 3-ring holes to keep them safely bound in a binder. Many home scanners today are equipped to scan negatives so do not throw these out. These negatives are still worthy of their purpose as an archival backup, especially if the original photos have been damaged, faded, or lost.

Store your photos and negatives in a room that has stable heating and cooling, low indirect lighting, and away from chemicals such as cigarette smoke.

Use digital photo software to edit photos you’ve scanned using touch up tools to restore damaged areas or color fade issues. You can also add the names of the individuals in the photos on the front margins then print and share at the family reunions.

For more fun with your pictures, host a photo organizing scanning night with friends or family. Be sure to make duplicates of photos you think others may wish to have. It could make for a great photo swapping evening!

Leaf’n through the memories,


Posted in Historic Preservation, Organization, Photographs, Photography | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Cemetery Picnicing in 7 Steps

The spring and early summer are fabulous times of the year for family gatherings and picnics. So why not make the family cemetery one of the destinations?

(c) 2007 LaDonna Garner1) Take along a picnic basket, a blanket, a camera, and a pencil & paper on a clipboard. Don’t forget to invite the elders down to the youngest family members for the day trip. A digital recorder or camcorder may also be brought along to capture the moments.

2) Draw a simple overview map of the cemetery layout. Mark on the map all of the areas where family members are known to be buried. Record the condition of the cemetery. Is it well kept or is it in poor condition? Is it still an active cemetery or no longer used for burials? Is there a caretaker?

3) Walk the cemetery. Allow the elders to walk alongside the youngest members of the family. This may help rekindle stories and allow them to continue to pass down through the family.

4) Consult with the elders on past burials they witnessed. With a bit of reminiscing, the elders may be able to recall the events and customs used when past family members were buried. They may especially point out unmarked graves of loved ones where documents fail to assist or are no longer available. Be sure to add the information to your map.

5) Draw the layout of each family plot. Note the location of the plot. Also note the number of graves & known burials in the each plot. Record each headstone inscription in writing and note the condition of the stone and the plot. Has the stone been damaged or toppled over? Has the grave settled?

6) Photograph the cemetery and each family plot. Don’t be stingy on photographing as a digital camera works well for this project. Photograph an overview of the cemetery then narrow to the location of each family plot. Make sure to note each photographed location that is taken on your map. Take photographs of each family plot, then each individual headstone in the plot, front and rear.

7) After the picnic, scan and input your map details into your family tree software. I am not the best artist and also use drawing software to recreate the map into a shareable and usable format. It is also good to compare your map to historical maps of the cemetery if available.

In former years, cemeteries were a part of the social custom of our culture. Today they seem to be out of sight and out of mind. Sadly that is causing a detachment and an overwhelming disrespect for cemeteries in general. After 10 years of restoring the family cemetery, I hope to never see it disrespected again. And to think something as simple as a picnic visit can help reverse that trend. :)

Leaf’n a Legacy,

Posted in Cemeteries, Genealogy, Maps | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Getting Organized #1: Software Data

This month let’s be dedicated to setting aside a few hours to get some things organized for the family tree. Who knows, maybe I’ll find a few things I overlooked when tucking the sources away!Getting Organized!

Family tree software has its own ways of getting disorganized compared to the paper piles on the desk. Here’s a few tips to help keep the data updates hassle free and in top shape.

  • Make a master example for citations. Probably one of the most dreadful parts of using software is differing format one causes when citing your sources. Use a good reference or two such as Evidence! or Evidence Explained or Quicksheets y Elizabeth Shown-Mills for examples of each source type.
  • Make a master genealogy folder on your hard drive. In this folder include individual folders by category i.e. photos, birth certificates, land records then further divide into family groups or by person. This will create easy attachment while working within the software and easier backups for your files.
  • Consider a standard naming system for each digital document you create from your sources. For instance, file names that are longer than eight characters can be tedious to browse and relocate later example: ClarkDPerchantBirthCertificate.tif. By giving each family member their own personal code each document with that code pertains to that person only. Example: Clark D. Perchant  has a birth certificate and his code is CDP. So I’ll mark this document as CDP1 and save the file as CDP1.tif and CDP1.jpg. Be sure to make a master list and include it in the person’s software file.
  • Have an incoming box for new source documents. File sorting trays that hang on your office door or sit on the desk can be labeled to help you remember what was added to the family software and what is ready to be filed. Setting several trays marked with the needed process you choose will move along the sources documents between the times you have to step away from your research. Some examples:
    • “IN” these are the new items located on your recent research trip.
    • “SOFTWARE” these items need to be scanned, cited, and attached to the individual(s) in question.
    • “RESEARCH LOG” these items should be noted in your  research log and dated.
    • “TO BE FILED” these items are done and ready to be filed for safe keepings.

Set aside a time each week or month to do some software housekeeping and you’ll always be ready for making current TO-DO lists for your research trips.

Happy Leaf’n!

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Skillbuilder: Placing Your Ancestors Within Their Time

Genealogy should not be narrowed around a database of names and places, detached from reality. Your ancestors experienced events that effected their lives and decisions just as you do today.

The best part about living in the present generation is the many resources that enable you t0 revisit the events that touched your ancestor’s lives and reintroduce them to your ancestor’s history.

Timelines are a great avenue to experience and understand past events pertaining to the family:

  • If you use family tree software it likely has a timeline report that will list and print a chronological draft of your ancestor’s life events. Go ahead and print out this list to see what you have and what you can incorporate.
  • Use a word processor program such as Microsoft Word or Open Office Writer to build your timeline manually.
  • Index cards can also be used as a guide. Place the name, birth & death date on the top of the card then add bullet style notations of a list or single event, a summary of the event, and notations so you can incorporate your source citations.

To add to the above timeline, you’ll want to visit sites such as those below that mark events your ancestor likely was aware.

  • This Day In History on has many national headlines and events that occurred on a specific date. Just put a date or year into the search box.
  • Any-Day-in-History has a simple list of event dates, historical figure birthdates, and other date information that may be useful according to the date you search.
  • is another simple site for nationwide and historical figure information. Just type a date into the google search bar and a list of possible dates will be shown. (More historical figures: and
  • dMarie Time Capsule is a site that gives you some headlines, pricing of items such as gas and bread, and other information such as popular books of the date you specify.
  • Today in History by The Library of Congress is very useful.
  • Digitized newspapers are especially helpful in targeting specific dates. and GenealogyBank are just two of several online database sites that offer a searchable collection of newspapers across the country. Both require a subscription to access the full image that may be accessible at a nearby library. (The New York Times’s “On This Day” and Washington Post’s “Today in History” print online articles for specific events for a given day .)
  • Then there’s the tried and true, visit the nearest library or archive for the newspapers on microfilm. You will find events closely related to your ancestor’s community and hopefully specifically regarding him as well. It will take some time and patience to roll through the microfilm roll and well worth the effort. But with growing interest in digitization, your nearest library may have digital microfilm readers that will save the images you locate directly to a thumbdrive. But if you still are required to print, just scan the document and save it into your family tree database.

Here’s to leaf’n through the newspaper!



Posted in Genealogy, Skillbuilder | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Documenting Civil War Ancestors

Here it is, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War…the Sesquicentennial. Yesterday marked the first official day of the Civil War. It’s remarkable how much we can enlighten our family history through the large assortment of records that have spawned from numerous years of revisiting one of the most detrimental periods in U.S. History.

So to get you going, I won’t monopolize your valuable time with chatter but will highlight several links to get you jumping on your military family search.

Gale Group is offering free access to an assortment of databases through April 24, 2011 including Slavery & Anti-Slavery: A Transitional Archive and NewsVault for 19th Century U.S. Newspapers

Free Civil War on is currently offering free access to its Civil War Document Collection. (Note: clicking through this link benefits my blog.) Civil War Collection and Civil War Records

Missouri State Archives, Soldiers’ Records: War of 1812 – World War I

National Park Service, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System

Library of Congress, American Memory Timeline Civil War and Reconstruction

Keep on leaf’n thru history,

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