Home → First steps →
Interviewing relatives, Part I
Finding family history: your relatives' memories
Part I - Family history interview preparation
The best place for finding family history is probably a lot closer than you
think. No matter how many records are online, there is never likely to be a
better source than your own family members for the tales and colour that reveal
your ancestors' stories through the ages.
Just think about it. Your grandmother probably knew her grandmother. If she
did, she can tell you about your great great grandmother. Depending on your own
age, she may have tales and memories of people who were born 100 or even 150
years ago. Even if she didn't know these folk first-hand, she will most likely
have heard family tales about them.
Interviewing her will provide information on
four or more generations of ancestors without you having to consult a single
written record, or pay a fee or subscription. That's why most genealogists will
tell you that interviewing your relatives could be your smartest option for
finding family history. Don't delay.
- Sketch out a provisional family tree
before your visit a relative (see Part III - link below - for telephone interviews). Fill this tree with all the information you already
have to hand. Don't worry about gaps. You can use this tree as a prompt
for your relatives who can either confirm or question its contents, or
fill in some of the gaps.
- Gather your treasure! Finding
family history mementos - especially
photos - will be richly rewarded. Many people remember faces better than
names and photos are an excellent way of jogging memories. Formal wedding
photos can be especially useful.
- Choose your candidates.
Older relatives should be your priority because they are usually the best
outlet for finding family history stories, but don't overlook younger
family members. They have probably heard the stories from the older
- Keep your expectations realistic.
Be sure of what you hope any single individual to provide. Unless your
relative is a family historian, he or she is unlikely to have or know all
the dates, names and locations you'd like to get your hands on. (Finding specific family history records before or after the interview is a better idea.)
Instead, what they have are thoughts, feelings, motivations and
perceptions. This is where you find the true colour in your family's
story. Such unique details, which convey the essence of characters, places
and relationships are lost when someone dies, so treasure them.
- Decide which questions to ask
your relative. These might vary from one relative to another, according to
their relationship with your direct ancestors.
- Sort out how you will record the
interview. Are you going to rely on note-taking or will
you record the conversation to machine? If the latter, ensure you are
completely familiar with the equipment and check that it is working
Part II - Research interviewing etiquette. Gaining trust. Telephone interviewing.
Part III - Suggested questions to ask.