Getting Started in Genealogy: Interviewing Relatives

getting started Feb 23, 2021

Welcome back! This week we continue in our Getting Started in Genealogy series.

Step One: Gather What You Know

This is an important step. Gathering and organizing what is known about your family history before you begin your research online will set you up for success. Skip this step and you just might find yourself frustrated, overwhelmed, or worse… researching someone else’s family and claiming them as your own.

In our last blog post, "Home Sources," we looked at gathering items in your house (photographs, documents, family keepsakes) that contain valuable genealogical data and starting your family tree or pedigree chart.

Armed with that information, it’s time to interview those who know your family best- your relatives. This will help you fill-in missing facts in your family tree, confirm details, and get more clues. Your relatives can also share stories not found in documents.

Remember, our relatives memories aren’t always perfect. Later during your research, you will need to validate the information you gather during these interviews with documented evidence. As we say in genealogy, there is no “truth” without “proof.”

Preparing for the Interview

Make a list of relatives you want to interview. Consider starting with your oldest living relatives first. Ask if someone in your family has already done some research. They could be a great resource and time saver.

When contacting family members, let them know you want to interview them because you are interested in the family history.

Determine how you will conduct the interview. Will you do it in person, over the phone, or video conference. Whenever possible, record the interview. Hearing family stories in their own words is a valuable keepsake.  It also frees you up to listen instead of trying to write everything down.

Schedule a time and quiet place for your conversation. Usually 20-45 minutes is a good amount of time. You don’t want to overwhelm your relatives! You can always schedule follow-up interviews to continue the conversation.

Pull out photos and other family memorabilia. These items are helpful to trigger memories. This is also a good time to get those mystery photos or items identified.

Questions to Ask

Your goal for these interviews is to fill-in missing facts in your family tree, confirm details, and gather stories.

Write down your questions in advance for each relative. Be careful not to overwhelm them with too many questions at once. Ask what is most important first and follow-up with another interview.

Here are some questions to choose from. (You can also check out my Family History Interview Questions Cheat Sheet, which contains 70 questions to prompt conversations.)

  1. What is your full name? Who were you named after? Did you ever have a nickname?
  2. When and where were you born?
  3. Did you have any siblings? What were their names?
  4. What were your parents’ names? Where and when were they born?
  5. What were your grandparent’s names? Do you know where and when they were born?
  6. Where did you grow up? Did any other family members live near you?
  7. What language was spoken at home?
  8. What was your religion growing up? What was the name of your church?
  9. What was your favorite holiday? Do you remember any traditions or recipes?
  10. What do you remember about school? Did you have a favorite grade or subject?
  11. What world events or local events had the greatest impact on your family
  12. Did you or another family members serve in the military? During wartime?
  13. What was your favorite and least favorite job?
  14. What is your spouse’s name? How did you meet?
  15. What are your children’s names? When and where were they born?


Interview Tips

  • Be patient and flexible. If a question brings up another memory, be prepared to go where they go.
  • Be sensitive. Some subjects might be difficult or painful to talk about. You might be the first person they’ve ever shared a memory with. 
  • Connect don’t contradict. If your relative is living with a memory issue, don’t correct them if they get a date or name wrong.

After the Interview

Schedule any follow-up conversations and don’t forget to say thank-you! If you recorded the interview, take the time to edit, transcribe, and back-it up for safe keeping.

Update your pedigree-chart. Make some notes on what you learned during the interview. Start a list of questions you have about your family history. Is there a particular ancestor or branch of the family you want to know more about?


What’s next - Planning Your Research

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