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How to Talk to Family: Interviews and Oral Histories

The holidays are all about togetherness. And while you have the family together, consider one of the first steps in family history–interviewing relatives-and take advantage of this time by asking the right questions.


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The holidays are all about togetherness. And while you have the family together, consider one of the first steps in family history–interviewing relatives-and take advantage of this time by asking the right questions.

Below are's tips for interviewing family members and compiling oral histories.

The Value

Information: There's a reason professional genealogists appreciate family interviews: interviewing living relatives often adds rich details to one's family history—details sometimes that cannot be found in historical records (i.e. how grandma met grandpa, etc). Additionally, your family history is like a puzzle ... and each of your relatives has a different piece. You may not know the birthplace of your maternal great-uncle, but it's possible your second-cousin has the answer.

Preservation: Even if you're not looking for something specific, it never hurts to compile oral histories for the sake of posterity. Some fascinating family stories might be lost unless you take the time to sit down with the older, wiser members of your family.

The Setup

Go high-tech: It used to be that pencils and notepads were your only options. But now it's fairly easy to find a video camera or at least a small tape recorder. Not only will the technology help you capture more vivid memories (i.e. someone's face or someone's voice), you'll enjoy the interview more when you're not scrambling to take down detailed notes.

Have supplies handy: You never want to cut an interview short because you've run out of tapes or run down your battery. If you interrupt a good tangent, chances are you'll lose some potentially great information. So before the interview even begins, make sure you have plenty of supplies to see you through.

Make it easy: No one wants to spend an entire family function talking into a tape recorder. So be respectful and choose a time that's convenient. If you know for a fact that one of your relatives is longwinded, wait until after (rather than before) dinner to begin the interview... you don't want anyone to feel rushed.

What to Ask

Childhood: Nothing sparks nostalgia quite like childhood memories. Not only are they entertaining, they're a great source of firsthand history. Where better to learn about life in past decades than from the people who actually lived in them?

Changing technology: Most of us have relatives who lived without computers ... or even calculators. Questions about "what was new in your day" can add valuable historical perspective to your family history.

Historical events: "What was it like during the Great Depression? Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?" You dont have to ask these exact questions, but you might want to come up with similarly appropriate topics. Remember: a memory that's significant to a family member might also be significant to future generations.

Visit to see how other people have recorded their own family histories.

Source Information:, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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