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Ask The Right Questions

Before you begin randomly interviewing your relatives, you need to come up with a plan. Decide what sort of information you need–make a list of all relevant topics for which information may be sparse or lacking.


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Someone once said, "Ask the right questions, and you'll get the right answers." That couldn't be more appropriate than when seeking information from your relatives. While you can usually find the genealogical information you need to assemble your family tree, interpreting that information for a family history may not be so easy. Unlike a family tree, which includes birth, marriage, and death information–basically who's related to whom–a family history requires more detailed facts to help make your relatives come to life.

Before you begin randomly interviewing your relatives, you need to come up with a plan. Decide what sort of information you need–make a list of all relevant topics for which information may be sparse or lacking. For instance, missing spouses for some of your family members, occupations, or even causes of death in some cases.

Begin by interviewing your immediate family members. Since you're most familiar and comfortable with them, you'll have an opportunity to perfect your interviewing techniques. Talk to as many as you can. You'll discover that different relatives will have different stories about the same events.

Many people interview only their oldest relatives. Don't wait until someone is in their 80s or 90s to talk to them. As people get older, their memories aren't quite as clear as they once were. But do begin by speaking to your older relatives. After all, they may not live that much longer.

While the closest members of your family will probably give you much of the information you need, your cousins may offer some additional details. Finding distant relatives is easier today than it once was thanks to the Internet. There are many online directories, including, which allow you to look up a person by name. And though many people don't use them much anymore, telephone directories from other cities, which you'll find at your local library, can be of great help.

Be sure to prepare a list of questions in advance of each interview. It's important that you control the interview and not just let your relatives ramble on. You may find it easy to get caught up in the stories they're telling and then forget to ask an important question. Your lists of questions will help both you and your relatives stay on track.

Don't ask "yes" or "no" questions. Keep them open-ended, such as asking what your relative can recall about his or her parents or if they've recently emigrated to the United States, what their immigration experience was like. When your relative mentions the name of a person or place, be sure to get the correct spelling.

Before speaking with a relative, do some research about them. Knowing details about them will not only flatter them but will make them open up to you.

Everyone has difficulty remembering exact times and places so don't get upset if an elderly relative forgets a specific date or fact. Collect as much information as you can and do some research later to determine the date or clarify a fact. You can also help your relative narrow down the date by referring to events that happened within your family or in the world.

Some relatives may not want you to mention certain topics that make them uncomfortable, such as ex-spouses or children from previous relationships. It's a good idea to send them your list of questions to review by E-mail or regular mail before they're scheduled to meet with you. An added benefit is it will give them time to think of their answers and even to look up information for you.

Some of your relatives that you wish to speak to may live a distance from you. With today's technology, it's easy to get the answers to their questions. You can do the it all by E-mail, sending your questions to which they can reply at their leisure. This saves on long distance phone charges. Or, if you know they're not computer savvy, then send your questions by regular mail. You can even create a general questionnaire that you can send to a lot of people. If they have stories to tell, suggest that they record them and send you the tape.

Don't assume every statement is true. Also, delete damaging statements made by a relative about another person in your family. Family gossip and rivalries can ruin your research. The burden of proof is on you, so if you have any doubts, leave out the information.

If a relative refers to a letter they received, do not show it or quote from it without receiving written permission from the person who wrote it. Letters remain the intellectual property of the writer, regardless of which relative has it. If the person who wrote the letter has died, you should get permission from one of their living descendants.

Though the length of time you'll need for these interviews will vary, try to control it. If you just let your relatives go on and on, you'll discover that it will be difficult to organize all the facts. It's better to go back for a second or even a third visit than try to get all the information in one sitting. If your relatives go off on tangents, be sure to bring them back to the topic at hand by asking a different question.

Taking notes is the best way to keep track of your subject's answers. However, few people can write fast enough, so you may want to use a tape recorder as a backup. Many recorders have built-in microphones which don't produce good quality sound. Consider purchasing a noise-cancelling lapel microphone from an electronics store to plug into the recorder. However, do not use only the tape recorder to collect the information. They're notorious for stopping during an interview without you knowing it–actually you may get so wrapped up in what your relative is saying that you forget to check it. And be sure to transcribe your tape or go back through your notes as soon as possible after the interview before you forget what the person said.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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