5 tips for successful family history interviews

Family history interviewGrandma Warren sat down in her last days and typed up her memoirs. I love them and I am glad that she dedicated her time to getting it down on paper. I think she was prompted by family members and helped by them too. She had such a large family and had time for them all. I only got to meet her a number of times as I married into the family but I felt like her memoirs really caught a part of her that always comes to life when I read it. So if you don’t have a grandmother that will write down all her memories in life then the next best thing is going out to interview family members.


Many times you have to contact a family member you don’t know that well. This can be a bit daunting but it can be very rewarding. Ring your family member to make a time to meet; you may need to explain how you are related.  When you are going to talk to a family member, make a time and make it short to start with; a half an hour might be a good start. You may already have an idea of what you want to focus on and ask them in advance, so they can prepare. Also see if they may have anything that might be of interest to you that you could take a photo or copy of to add to your family history. After you interview your family member, make sure that you thank your relative and see if you can follow up with them if you have forgotten anything.  Sending them a thank you card and seeing if there is anything of interest that you might be able to send them is a nice gesture.

Organise yourself

Take a video camera or voice recorder and a note pad and ask what they are comfortable with you to use. (Always take spare battery power and always take a pen and pad in case your technology breaks down). Although your family member might find it a bit harder to relax on video, this medium is easier to share and enjoy for all family members, especially if you are looking at doing a reunion in the future. But the special part of organising yourself is to take photos, memorabilia, or other interesting family history mementos to your family member. Try to get copies of what you are taking to leave with them. These photos or other articles may trigger a memory and the sharing of your family history will be appreciated.

Types of questions

There are many questions that you could ask your family member, but the best type are open ended questions. An open ended question is one where they can’t just answer  ”yes” or ”no”. An open ended question is good, as it adds more information about a topic and is more interesting. There are many lists of interview questions that you could ask but really look at what you want to find out. So many people kick themselves later for not asking about a family heirloom their mother always talked about or what happened to Aunt Betty. Make sure that there is no burning questions that you forgot to ask by writing them down.

Don’t just focus on names and dates

Interviewing family members can be quite exhausting and time consuming but it depends on how you go about it. Although you may have a list of questions that you want to know for researching your genealogy. It’s really the meat on the bones and the family history that can be the most rewarding part of an interview. Don’t just sit down and get a list of names and dates, ask about things that your family members enjoyed. Did they have a love or passion for something that they would enjoy talking about?

Get them talking

Make sure that you ask interview questions about the person you are interviewing not just about the family members that you want to know about. Relate the questions of your other family members to the person you are interviewing, like instead of asking “When did Aunty Betty die?” you could ask “How old were you when Aunty Betty died?”. People remember more about what they were involved in and it lets your family member know that you are interested in them too.

Emotional Memories

Sometimes reliving the past can bring up many emotions. Take the time to be sensitive to this. They may be remembering deaths of loved ones or remembering a tragedy in their life or family.  If your family member gets upset ask if they wish to keep talking about a subject or not. If not, then move on to talk about another topic. If there is silence, your family member may be trying to gather their thoughts on how to answer your question. Don’t interrupt and be understanding.

I have made contact with many different aunties and uncles when doing our family history. Some people are very forthcoming and are happy to make time to talk. Others may not see the need in getting family history recorded and digging out any photos for you. I guess it depends on whether they see the family history as important or not. But don’t give up, people change over time and can go from not interested to fully converted in a short amount of time.




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