One vital source for your family history or genealogy research is personal interviews with family members.
It is also one of the most overlooked sources, and most avoided. Many people dread asking what can be some very personal questions.
But knowing what questions to ask, and how to ask them, can make the process less daunting.
Written Records vs. Oral Traditions
One common theme when it comes to genealogy is proof, proof, proof. What evidence do you have? If it isn’t written down, how can you know it’s true?
Written records are great, if they exist and if you can find them. But they never tell the whole story.
A lot happens in our lives that is never written down, especially in official records. If you rely only on paper records, you’re only getting a very small part of the story.
But can you rely on oral accounts? Yes, most of the time you can. Unless you have reason to believe otherwise, then what you learn from interviews should be considered fact.
And once you transcribe the interview, it becomes a written record, not only for you, but for all the family historians who come after you.
Preparing for the Interview
Preparation is crucial for getting the most out of a family history interview. Here are some things you need to do before you begin to talk.
Know Your Interviewee
Knowing a little bit about the person you’re talking to is essential. You can’t ask the right questions if you don’t have some idea of what your interviewee can tell you.
If you know too much, it might not be worth the interview at all. Talking to your brother or sister about what it was like growing up isn’t going to help you much. You grew up with them! But if you ask your grandparents the same thing, you can learn a wealth of new information.
Have Your Charts Ready
Have your ancestral charts and family group sheets with you as a reference. The names can be a great way to prompt memories, and the gaps can tell you what questions to be asking.
Your interview might turn up some mistakes, too, that you would never learn about if they weren’t there to catch during the interview.
Photographs are wonderful for stirring up old memories and stories. Bring a few along that you’d like to know more about, especially if they include people you can’t identify.
And be sure to ask if the person you’re interviewing has any photos they want to share with you as well.
Recording the Interview
There many advantages of making an audio or video recording of the interview. But there are some drawbacks, too.
The main advantage of making a recording is it lets you go back and listen again as many times as you want. It’s easy to miss things in the scramble to get everything written down. A recording can let you doublecheck what you have written, even if the person you recorded has since passed away, and preserves their voice, words, and memories for future generations.
The main drawback is that some people are nervous or less open in what they say when they are being recorded. They don’t want to go on record with certain things, especially negative things.
Always ask before making a recording. And if your interviewee skips over something while the recorder is on, try asking again at the end after you turn off the recorder.
Alternate Interview Methods
A face to face interview is always best if you can arrange it. If not, don’t give up on the idea entirely. A phone interview, or better yet Skype, can be almost as good. Even a written interview, by letter or email, is better than nothing.
You should always tailor your questions to your particular situation. As much as possible, use open ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer, or a simple name or date.
Here are some possible questions to get you started.
- Were you named after someone? If so, why
- Where and when were you born
- Where did you live when you were growing up? Did you move, and when
- Do you have any siblings? What are their full names and birthdates and places? Are they married, and if so, to whom
- What are/were your parents’ names? Grandparents? What can you tell me about when and where they were born and how they grew up
- Do your parents have any siblings? Your grandparents
- What were your parents’ occupations? Your grandparents
- What memories do you have of your parents? Your grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins
- What memories do you have from growing up? What is your earliest memory
- What is the most amazing thing that ever happened to you
- What has been your greatest achievement
- Describe the house and city/town where you grew up.Where did you attend school? Did you participate in any sports/activities
- Did you attend college? What was your major
- What hobbies, interests, and pastimes do you have
- What world/national/local events had an impact on you growing up
- Was is/was your (or your spouse’s) occupation? Where do/did you work? When did you retire
- What was your first job? What other jobs have you had? Why did you pick your career
- When and how did you meet your spouse? When and where did you get married? Did you marry more than once
- Tell me about your children
- What church do you belong to? Where and when were you baptized? What religion were your parents?
- Where have you lived as an adult? When did you move?
- Did you serve in the military? When, what branch, what rank, where were you stationed
- What pets have you had? Do you have a favorite story about a pet?
- Do you have any birth, marriage, death, or other certificates, documents, or photos that I could look at, copy, or scan?
- Is there anything else you’d like to tell me that I haven’t asked?
One of the most important things to remember in conducting family history interviews is don’t wait. Start as soon as you can.
A few weeks, months, a year from now may be more convenient, but none of us know where we’ll be in a year. If you don’t interview your family members now, you may never get another chance.