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Conducting a Family History Interview

Connect with your family, discover your history

Interviewing family members gives you a chance to spend time together and ask questions. It is not always easy, but it can be extremely rewarding. You can connect with relatives in the present moment while preserving valuable stories and memories for future generations. Older family members can relive past experiences and accomplishments, and younger family members can learn new things about themselves, their heritage, and even their place in history.

  Conducting the Interview Step-by-Step

  1. Decide who you are going to interview. What is your relationship to them? It can be a relative, a friend, or anyone you consider family.
  2. Will you talk to one person, or will you do a group interview with multiple people at once?
  3. How will you connect with them?
    • In person
    • Phone
    • Video chat
  4. Brainstorm a list of questions to ask. What do you want to learn? Think of questions that will encourage them to tell stories and share memories of the past.
  5. Schedule a convenient time to talk with your family member. Consider you may be in different time zones.
  6. Send your list of questions to them in advance. If you don’t know your relative very well, this can help them prepare answers and open up. Explain your goals and why you want to connect with them.
  7. Determine how you will save their answers. It is important to preserve memories for future generations. Use a phone or some sort of recording device. At the very least write down their answers.
  8. When you talk to them, have your list of questions in front of you. Make sure to record their answers.
  9. Ask them if they have any objects or photographs to show you from their past. Do they have any documents, such as a birth certificate, marriage license, or old yearbook? Do you have a family tree?
  10. When you are finished, think of another family member to interview. You can ask questions based on answers you receive from each family member. Eventually you can gather information about the entire family!

Expert Tip! Contact them in advance and let them know what you are planning to do. Perhaps they can generate questions to ask in return. You can interview each other!

Expert Tips for Interviewing Family Members

  • The length of an interview does not need a set time of 30 minutes or 1 hour; consider the health and stamina of your family member and how tired they may get
  • Do not limit yourself to your list of questions; ask follow-up questions to foster a discussion
  • If they interject with a story try not to interrupt; let them finish their answer, and only interject at the end to get clarification
  • Past events and people can be difficult to remember; be patient and allow for pauses
  • Photographs and objects may help trigger memories
  • Some questions may be sensitive; know when to move on and skip certain things
  • Be sensitive with veterans; do not push to get war stories; you may simply say, "Were you in any battles? But please only tell me what you feel comfortable with?"
  • Ask questions that have more than simple “yes” or “no” answers; ask open-ended questions that require meaningful answers. (An example of an open-ended question is “What is your favorite memory from childhood?”)

Expert Tip! Try beginning your interview by saying, “Today we will talk about your earliest memories.” Then begin with their childhood and progress to different stages of their life.

Childhood Years

  • When and where were you born?
  • Who were you named after?
  • Where did you live? How did your family come to live there?
  • Who did you grow up with? What was it like?
  • What older relatives do you remember, and what do you remember about them?
  • Did you have a hobby? Did you collect anything?
  • Did you have a favorite movie?
  • Did you have a favorite type of food? What was your least favorite food?

Teenage Years

  • What did you and your friends do for fun? Did you have a favorite “hangout” spot?
  • Did you ever get in trouble?
  • Did you have any jobs?
  • What goals did you have as a teenager?
  • Who was your hero growing up?

School Years

  • What do you remember about attending school?
  • What schools did you attend, and which grades were you there for?
  • What were your favorite subjects in school and why?
  • Who were your favorite teachers and why?
  • Did you go to college? Where did you go and what did you study?

Family Relations

  • Do you know the origins of our family and where they lived?
  • What family stories have you heard about your parents, grandparents, and distant relatives?
  • Who was the earliest relative you remember? Can you share a story or a memory about them?
  • How did you celebrate holidays and birthdays?
  • Did you marry? How did you meet? Where did you propose? Where was your honeymoon?
  • What traits do you think are common in our family?

Later in Life

  • What was one of the happiest moments in your life?
  • What challenges in your life have made you stronger?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • Where is the most amazing place you visited? Where do you hope to visit someday?
  • Did you enlist or get drafted into the military? Where did you serve?
  • Do you remember any important events or eras in history? (JFK assassination, Civil Rights Movement, Moon landing, 9/11)
  • Do you remember when I was born? What do you remember about that day?

Expert Tip! When you are finished, share your family member’s answers with the children in your family.

Expert Tip! Encourage the youth in your family to interview you. You can answer these same questions. One day they can share your answers with their own descendants.

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