GenTips: Back to Basics: Interview Your Relatives

Posted August 18, 2008 by Geni | No Comment

In this post, Geni guest blogger and avid genealogist Lisa Alzo explains the importance and overall process of interviewing your relatives.

Genealogy is more than just names and dates. Family stories, although sometimes filled with errors, may still contain vital clues for your research.  If you have living relatives, make it a priority to sit down with them to record their oral history.  Ask them if they have any photographs or documents, and be sure to ask where events happened.  Record family stories in a notebook, and if possible, ask the person for permission to record an audio or video version of the interview. If someone lives in a different city, schedule a visit with him or her, or better yet, plan a family reunion.  Of course, sitting down in person is the best, but if face-to-face interview time isn’t a possibility, then you may have to conduct the interview by telephone, or even e-mail. 

Here are a few tips to help streamline the interview process:

1. Contact your interviewee in advance to schedule and convenient time and [quiet] place for the interview.  This will give the person time to gather any documents, photographs, or other memorabilia that may enhance the experience.  If you’ve set up an account with, you can invite your relatives to participate in the site and use Geni’s messaging features to make initial contact. 

2. Do your homework. Don’t waste precious interview time on the basics: “When were you born, where were you born, etc?” If possible try to obtain this information ahead of time. Try to get the person to actively participate in your Geni site where they can complete their own profile, as well as view your family tree and other family information. 

3. Prepare an outline of key questions in advance, noting especially the important stories or missing pieces of information. Try to avoid  “closed” questions in favor of "open-ended” ones. Closed questions are those questions that are relatively easy to answer and require little thought. For example, “Where were you born?” or “What year did you come to the United States?”  While open-ended questions call for a lengthy and more thoughtful response, “What do you remember about the town where you were born?” or “Describe what you remember about your experience coming to the United States.  What were the conditions like on the boat, train, plane, etc?” It’s probably not a good idea to provide the interviewee with questions beforehand.  By doing so, his or her answers may be “rehearsed” and not genuine or spontaneous, especially if you have questions that bring up suppressed or unpleasant memories.  You want the interview to be as natural as possible—after all, it’s not an inquisition.

4.  Disclose the purpose of your interview.  If you’re asking your Aunt Mary about the family just to complete the family tree and you plan to keep the information within the family, let her know this when you sit down.  However, if you plan to make this information public in any form (article, book, web site), you need to disclose this at the time, and be prepared to have your interview sign one or more legal forms, such as an “agreement on use (or release) form and/or “limitation on publication form.”  You may want to see the book Record and Remember for details. The signing of legal forms may seem unpleasant to you or your family members, but unfortunately is a necessary step to protect both the interviewer and the interviewee.

5.  Be a good listener. Keep simple notes of names, dates, places, important, or insightful quotes (even if you are recording the interview – machines and technology can fail at the most inappropriate times).  Use documents, photographs or other memorabilia to jog the memory or help the person recall a particular person, place or event in his/her life. You’ll be surprised at the emotional responses a photograph or piece of jewelry or some other possession will evoke in a person.  Always thank the person once you’ve finished, and ask if you can follow-up with further questions, or even schedule a second interview, if necessary.

Remember, you are the guiding force when interviewing your family members, and the success of documenting oral history depends on how well you prepare in advance and utilize your time with a person. 

For more tips and suggested questions to use for interviewing your relatives, consult’s Genealogy Knol

If you enjoyed reading this post, please join us in 2 weeks when Lisa delves deeper into the process of interviewing relatives. More specifically, the post will include ways to deal with some pitfalls you may encounter when doing oral history interviews, such as breaking the ice (if a relative clams up or is elusive), how to deal with relatives who are not as enthusiastic as you are, and also what if you don’t have any immediate family to interview?

About Lisa Alzo:

Lisa has published articles in: Family Tree Magazine, Family Chronicle
Magazine, Internet Genealogy, Discovering Family History Magazine,
Reunions Magazine, Ancestry Magazine, Everton’s Genealogical Helper and
other magazines. 

Lisa is also the author of seven books:  Three Slovak Women, Baba’s
Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Family Recipes and Traditions, Finding Your
Slovak Ancestors, Pittsburgh’s Immigrants, Slovak Pittsburgh, Sports
Memories of Western Pennsylvania and Writing Your Family History Book
(just released). Lastly, Lisa is the instructor for GenClass and National Institute
for Genealogical Studies.


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