Saturday, January 25, 2014


f you have older family members, you need to take the time to ask them questions about their history. Don’t let the opportunity pass! Unfortunately, my parents are gone. I remember hearing various genealogical comments made by them while I was growing up, but it was just background noise. My interest in family history came much later in life.  I vaguely recall one of my parents saying that we were distantly related to “Wild Bill Hickok” or was it “Buffalo Bill Cody”?  It is too late to ask. If only I had written things down.

Many older family members will welcome the opportunity to talk about their lives. They will relish the interest and enjoy the reminiscing. Others will not want to discuss too much about their background. Perhaps there is a family secret they don’t want to divulge—a bad experience during the war, an illegitimate child, a divorce, a criminal in the family, a draft dodger and many more possibilities.  When you get resistance from a family member, back off and respect their privacy. Always protect the privacy of the living.

As for the chattier folks, here are some websites that offer excellent questions you can ask your relatives:
  • "Interview Questions" compiled by Tracey Carrington Converse

  • "Family Interview Questions To Ask Your Relatives"

  • "Good Questions for Family Interviews"

  • "52 Questions in 52 Weeks" by Steve Anderson

  • "Interviewing Mom and Grandma: Oral History Tips"  by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

  • "20 Questions for Interviewing Relatives"

  • "Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews: What to Ask the Relatives" by Kimberly Powell

  • "A Family History Questionnaire" by Virginia Allee

  • Interview Questions from the Learning Center

  • "Conducting Family History Interviews"

You may want to use a recorder to capture the conversation. Of course, permission must be granted first. Perhaps the person would be more comfortable with your taking notes. 

Allow your family member to talk uninterrupted unless you feel the interview is going off course, in which case you can gently nudge them in a different direction.  Be attentive. Listen. And, by all means, turn off the ringer on your cell phone.

Don’t forget to ask if there are photographs, a family Bible, scrapbooks, certificates or some other family treasure. Because the person may not let you borrow these possessions, you should come prepared to photograph them, if only with your cell phone.  At Christmas I photographed nearly 50 old pictures of my husband’s family. I then e-mailed them to family members at their request. It is advisable to share photographs so that there will be extra copies in case of a disaster.  Even a photograph of a photograph is better than nothing.

Some relatives live far away and you won’t be able to sit with them. In that case, you can conduct the interview by telephone or, if they are technologically oriented, you could do it via e-mail, FaceTime, Skype or some other method. You could even send a letter with questions that can be answered and returned to you; include a self-addressed stamped envelope to make it easier on them and to also increase the chances of your getting a letter back. 

Good luck interviewing the older folks in your family. They have information that is hard, if not impossible, to find in archives or on the Internet. 


Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, Electronic Clip Art, "1200 Ornamental Letters," 2007.

Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, Electronic Clip Art, "1100 Pictorial Symbols, " 2007.

Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, Electronic Clip Art, "East Meets West: Art Deco Motifs," 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment