Interviewing Tips for Genealogy

Talk to family members

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is gramma-and-tara-e1517679464984.jpg

My grandmother would tell stories about her family. As a conscientious budding family historian, I decided to interview her. I was 17, cell phones didn’t exist and we were too poor to own a tape recorder, so with a pen and paper in hand I listened to her stories and took notes. That was my first opportunity to interview a family member. It was not a disaster. My grandmother was very tolerant and quite willing to tell me everything she remembered.

Next I wrote – yes, years ago we wrote letters for genealogy – to two of my great aunts asking them for information. Each of them sent back names, dates, and places of what they knew about their family. These letters were invaluable. They were the starting point for my research on them.

Then I “borrowed” from my dad the family history booklet created by Roy Miller in 1973. He had interviewed and sent letters to many family members to research his family, who were also my family. Once again, I had basic information that was a starting point for my research.

One of the first thing that beginner genealogists can do is talk to family members. Names, birth, marriage, and death dates and places are important but what you will treasure are the stories you hear. You do not have to to in blind. There a hundreds of websites with suggestions for questions to ask for family history – just google it.

Tips for interviewing family

When I first interviewed my grandmother, there were two things I did right. First she was the oldest member of her family. The other thing I did right was set up a date and time to talk to her about her memories. Setting up a time gave my grandmother time to think about her memories and to gather pictures or documents to show me.

Here are some tips for talking to your family.

  1. Set up a time and place for the interview.
  2. Record or video it on your phone.
  3. Use a virtual app such as zoom to interview long distance.
  4. Set a time limit. Don’t spend hours – this is for you so you do not get glassy eyed and them so they do not get tired.
  5. Make them comfortable – start with easier questions to relax them. Being recorded is scary for most people.
  6. Make sure your technology works before you begin.

Use a photo

My great grandparents – the Searles

The documents you unearth about your family can give insight about them. You can infer stories and emotions from the facts. For instance, the death record of Mary, the first child born to my great grandparents states that the infant died from convulsions following severe labour – only 2 days after her birth. With compassion, I can deduce the anguish of my great-grandparents. Grandma Searles would have been recovering from the physical pain of a difficult delivery and added to that was the grief of losing her daughter. There were no comforting hugs from her mother – the Atlantic Ocean separated them. She had only her new husband to calm her trauma. I ache for the pain they must have felt. From this example you can see how records can tell stories about the family.

Records give an account of your ancestors but hearing stories gives more dynamic information about them. Another daughter of my same great grandparents was accidently burned and died when she was 4 years old. According to the death registration she lived for 2 hours after being burned. Once again, I can imagine the pain they went through with the death of yet another child. Grandma Searles told my mom what happened.

Winnifred, that is the name of the toddler, was walking by a flame and her dress caught fire. The station master’s wife (think train station) refused to call a doctor or do anything to help. Winnifred died in her mother’s arms. My great grandmother never forgave the station master’s wife for not assisting her.

Knowing these few details makes the story more dramatic. I can picture the panic of trying to put out the flaming dress. I can see Grandma Searles tenderly holding her crying daughter until her last breath. Her grief was converted to anger at the woman who would not help. The picture of what happened is more vivid because of my great grandmother’s narrative.  

We learn the stories about our ancestors by talking to family members. Remember, start with your oldest living relative. The accounts you hear will help your understanding of them and the events in their lives better.  But what do you do when a relative you want to interview feels like their life was mundane and boring? They believe the dull minutiae of living is not interesting, even though those bits and pieces, when fit together, give a wonderful picture of who they are.

I have a technique that I love to use to help people relax and get them to talk about their lives. Most people have at least a few family photos. When you run into someone who balks at being interviewed, ask if they have a any pictures you can look through. As you look at them talk about the photos.  Things you might ask are:

  • Who is in the picture?
  • Where are you?
  • When was the picture taken?
  • What is happening or why did the family get together?
  • Were you there? What do you remember about that day?

As you see, start with questions that they can answer easily. Try to get them talking about that day and what was going on.

This is a picture of my family and friends at the beach. The questions you ask could lead to me talk about my friends or I might rhapsodize about my summers at the beach and how much fun we had.

Here is an example of the progression of the questions you can ask.

Interviewer: Are you in this picture?
Relative: Yes, I’m holding the one holding the baby
Interviewer: I can barely see you. You must not like having your picture taken.                         (wait for response)
Interviewer:  Do you remember who everyone in the picture is?

(wait for response – do not pressure them if they cannot remember everyone’s name)
Interviewer:  Did you go to the beach very often? Tell me about it.

After telling the story, I would feel great from remembering my childhood and you would have a story.

Now, unless you were able to record the conversation – WRITE IT DOWN – as soon as possible. You want the story to be in their words not what you remembered 2 days later.

Another tactic I have is to look at a picture and see if there is any detail that begs a question. I call or email a relative who could answer the question. This which sometimes leads to more stories.

A great example is the picture of my parent’s wedding. It was a small wedding, her parents a couple of friends and family members attended. One day, I looked at the photo and realized there was a minister in the picture. For years, my dad would not go into a church, so I called and asked him about the wedding. It turns out they did not get married in the church but outside, on the lawn. That sounded more like my dad.

I encourage you to talk to your family. Try to formally interview them but if that does not work get out a photo album and ask them about the pictures.

I would love to hear about your attempts at interviewing family members.

Ontario Death Registrations; Searles, Mary; Toronto, York; #3337; Microfilm MS 935 Reel 141; LDS Film 004,135,109; Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; citing Archives of Ontario; Toronto, Canada

Ontario Death Registrations; Searles, Winnifred; Cochrane, Temiskaming; #38870; Microfilm MS 935 Reel 216; Archives of Ontario; Toronto, Canada

Published by Tara Shymanski BA PLCGS

I am a professional genealogy researcher, speaker, and blogger who loves researching to find your ancestors.

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