Skip to main content

Family History Research: Steps to a Successful Interview

These steps will help you prepare to interview a family member for genealogical research. Questions to ask are also suggested.

Family History Research: Steps to a Successful Interview

Steps 1-13

Brought to you in association with The Ellis Island Foundation.

In normal conversation, both people talk. Ideas are exchanged. Each person contributesinformation. The talk flows in unpredictable ways.

Interviews are a little different. One person (you) has a goal. You want to obtain information from another person (let's call him or her "the talker"). You want the talker to feelcomfortable, but you need to direct the conversation to the points you areinterested in.

More: 5 Questions Kids Should Ask Their Grandparents

You also have to be flexible. Sometimes an unexpected topic can turn out tobe wonderful. Other times, you'll need to lead your talker back to the mainpoint — without hurting his or her feelings. This can be difficult, but youwill become better at it as you go along — practice will make you skilled. Bepatient with yourself and expect some mistakes. To make things easier, keepthese steps in mind:

Step 1: Before you interview anyone, give advance warning. Explain what you wantto do, why you want to do it, and why this person is important to you andyour research. Here's one approach:

Dear Aunt Jesse:

I'm working on a history of our family, and it would be very helpful if Icould sit down and talk with you. I'm particularly interested in yourmemories of my great-grandparents (your mother and father) and the family'searly years in Minnesota.

I'd also love to look at any old photographs or documents you have from the early days.

I won't need much more than an hour of your time, and would like to holdour talk at your home. Any weekend day would be fine. Can you let me know adate that is convenient for you?

Thanks so much for your help.

By writing this letter, you've given your relative a chance to start thinking about the topics you're interested in, and you may have even jogged hermemory. Of course, not all your relatives will be close by, and yourarrangements may be more difficult than "any weekend day." That just makesyour writing — and planning — even more important.

Step 2: Prepare for your interview. Find out whatever you can about thisrelative before the interview. Where does she fit into the family? What documents might she have? What other genealogical jewels might she have? Gather as much information as you can ahead of time about her relationship to everyone in your family. Your parents canprobably help you with this.

Step 3: Think out your questions beforehand. Interviewing requires structure.Write your questions on a sheet of paper, organized by subject. One easyway to organize what you want to ask is by years: Start with yourrelative's earliest years, and then move on from there.

Step 4: If at all possible, bring a tape recorder. A small recorder usually doesn't disturbanyone, and it catches every bit of information, including the way yourtalkers sound and exactly how they answer questions. If you don't have atape recorder, ask your parents if you can borrow or even rent one.

Step 5: In any case, bring a notebook and pen. Even if you have a tape recorder,always take handwritten notes. Recorders have been known to break down.

During the interview, write down names and dates, and double-checkthem with your subject. Facts are important, but the most important information your talkers offer are their stories. Try to capture the way they talk, and their colorful expressions: "That ship was rolling on the ocean like a marble in your hand."

There's another good reason to bring pen and paper with you. You won't haveto interrupt when you think of a question; just write a note to yourself soyou'll remember to ask it at an appropriate time.

Step 6: Start with easy, friendly questions. Leave the more difficult oremotional material for later in the interview, after you've had time togain your talker's trust. If things aren't going well, you may want to savethose questions for another time.

It's also a good idea to begin with questions about the person you're interviewing. You may be most interested in a great-grandfather if he is the missing link in your Pedigree Chart.But first get some background information about your talker — your aunt, forexample. This serves two purposes. First, it lets her know she's importantto you and that you care about her; second, it may reveal some otherinformation you'd never have known about otherwise.
Also, when asking for dates, relate them to your talker. "How old wereyou when Uncle Bill died?" is often a better way of discovering when theevent happened than simply asking, "What year did Uncle Bill die?"

Step 7: Bring family photographs with you, and use them during the interview.Look for photos, artwork, or documents that will help jog your subject'smemory. Bring the pictures out and ask your talker to describe what's goingon. "Do you remember when this was taken? Who are the people? What was theoccasion? Who do you think took the picture?" You may be amazed at how muchdetail Aunt Jesse will see in a photograph.

Step 8: Don't be afraid of silence. You might feel uneasy and want to rush in withanother question when your talker stops speaking. Don't. Silence is animportant part of interviewing, and it can sometimes lead to veryinteresting results. Because people find silence uncomfortable, they oftentry to fill it if you don't — and in doing so, they may say something youmight not have heard otherwise.

Sometimes silence is also necessary for gathering thoughts. Don'tforget — you are asking your subjects to think back on things they may nothave considered in years. Calling up these memories may spark otherthoughts, too. Allow your subject time to ponder. You may be thrilled withwhat he or she remembers.

Step 9: Be ready to ask the same question a few different ways. People don'tknow how much they know, and rephrasing a question can give you moreinformation. This happens all the time. "I don't know," a relative will tell you, sometimes impatiently. They do know — they just don't know that theyknow. The most common version of this is when an interviewer asks,"What was your father's mother's name?" The relative answers, "I never knew her. I don't know." But a few minutes later, in response to "Whom were you named after?" this answer comes: "My father's mother."

Try to find a couple of ways to ask important questions. You never can besure what you will learn.

Step 10: Ask to see any family treasures your relatives own. When your talkers bring out an heirloom, ask them to describe what you're looking at. What is it? How was it used? Who made it? Who gave it to them? Ask if there are any stories connected with it, or any documents.

Step 11: Be sensitive to what you discover. Sometimes people become emotionaltalking about the past. They may remember relatives long dead, or forgottentragedies. If your talker is upset by a memory, either remain silent, orquietly ask, "Is it all right if we talk some more about this? Or would yourather not?" People frequently feel better when they talk about sad things;you should gently give your relative the choice of whether to go on.

Step 12: Try not to interrupt. If your talker strays from the subject, let himor her finish the story and then say, "Let's get back to Uncle Moe," or,"You said something earlier about. . ." Not interrupting makes theconversation friendlier, and may lead you to something you didn't expect.

Step 13: Ask for songs, poems, unusual memories. You may discover somethingwonderful when you ask your subject if she recalls the rhymes she used torecite while jumping rope as a little girl, or the hymns she sang inchurch. Probe a little here — ask about childhood games and memories, smellsand tastes and sounds. Although you are the expert when it comes to your family and probably knowwhat questions to ask, here are a few suggestions:

  • Home and community life. "What do you remember about the house you livedin? How many bedrooms did it have? Where did most of the familyactivities go on? What was the neighborhood (village) like? What kind ofpeople lived there? What did you do for fun? Who else lived in theneighborhood (village, etc.)? What kinds of activities went on there?"

    Personalities and relationships. "Tell me about your parents: Whatkind of people were they? What was most important to them? Did they have agood marriage? What do you remember most vividly about them? What was yourrelationship like with your mother/father/sister/brother?"

    Economic conditions. "How did the family earn money? Who worked? How didyour family compare to others in the neighborhood — richer or poorer or inthe middle? Who handled the family finances? Were there any major economicsetbacks? Were there any big successes? What kinds of things did the familyspend money on?"

    Family characteristics. "Were there a lot of people in the family whoresembled each other? What were the most outstanding familycharacteristics? Are there any diseases that run in the family? Anyphysical oddities? Was anyone in our family famous or notorious? Was therea 'black sheep' in the family? Do you remember any big family celebrationor event, or a crisis in the family?"

    Questions that explore the links between family members can turn upwonderful anecdotes. Be sure to ask about family "characters," and try toget a sense of how they were received within the family.

    Family facts. You will always be trying to fill in the blanks on your Pedigree Chart and Family Group Sheets. Show your subject the charts and ask: "After whom were you named? Do you know the names of your parents' parents? Do you know anyone whowould know more than you do about that branch of the family? Where are members of our family buried? Is there a family burial plot?What did great-grandma, etc., die of?"

    Life in the Old Country and the trip over (for immigrants). "Tell me why you came to America. Did any member of the family come to America before you? Who, when, and why did they? What did you do when you came here? What kind of work did you do in the Old Country? What did you do forentertainment in the Old Country? Do you remember anything about your trip to America?"

    If you are lucky enough to have relatives who remember their immigration, question them carefully. There's a lot of richness — and family history — inthose memories.

After the Interview
Your interview should not last more than about an hour. People do best when they are not tired. If you think there's more to talk about, scheduleanother interview. That will give you time to review your notes andconsider any other questions you might want to ask. It will also give yourrelative time to remember more things.

After you've done the interviewing, your hardest, most important work liesahead. You have to go through the information and analyze it. What have youlearned? Did you discover any new relatives, or find out about something worth following up?How accurate is what you have learned?

If you recorded the interview, transcribe it — that is, write or type up theimportant things your talker told you. Review the information. Take out your Family Group Sheets and see if you can add to any of them. Maybe you'll have the name of a third son in a family you've never heard of, or the address of a home that your grandparents lived in. Write everything in its appropriate place, and be sure to indicate where the information came from.

There's one last, very important step: thanking your talkers. They have been generous with their time, energy, and memories. Sending them a thank-you note and a copy of the interview (for corrections and additions) is a way to show that you value what they've shared.

Excerpted from Do People Grow On Family Trees?Copyright 1991 by Ira Wolfman and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis IslandFoundation, Inc. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York.All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior writtenpermission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc.

Subscribe to Family Education

Your partner in parenting from baby name inspiration to college planning.