Sometimes the exigencies of life preempt the most well-laid plans, and genealogical plans are no exception. I had planned out what I wanted to accomplish in 2019 for my own (non-client) family history. But then my Uncle Bob was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer, and all those plans were thrown out the window.
As the eldest son and executor of my grandparents’ estates, Uncle Bob has the lion’s share of the surviving family papers. So his sister (my Aunt Gwen) and I are jointly descending on Virginia this weekend to help Bob go through those papers and make plans for preservation and distribution. Once we made these plans, though, it occurred to me that this would also be my last opportunity to interview two of my mother’s three siblings together.
A number of websites address various aspects of interviewing family members as part of your research. The first three websites I found particularly useful focus predominantly on the fundamental concepts of interviewing for oral history. The next six sites focus on specific questions to ask your relatives. Consulting these sites helps trigger your own ideas while developing your own list.
“The Genealogy Interview: Asking Relatives Questions to Grow Your Family”
New York Genealogical and Biographical Society
Rather than supplying a list of questions for the interviewer, Wertz discusses fundamental concepts to consider when planning an interview. It’s a really useful introduction.
- Consider sitting down with groups or pairs.
- Seek the same information you do in other research—names, dates, and places.
- Don’t just find facts—collect stories (don’t overfocuson names, dates, places).
- Ask creative questions to get the best stories (“what was lunch like when you went to school?” vs. “where did you go to school?”; roundabout questions can trigger more memories, particularly sensory questions).
- Ask about parents and grandparents, but don’t forget about collateral relatives.
- Make use of photo albums.
- Use an audio recorder.
- Go with the flow.
- Treat the information like any other genealogical source.
- What to do when you’re finished (pull out key facts; scan, label photos; preserve and share audio files).
- Just go for it (don’t pass up golden opportunities).
“What’s Your Story? Conducting Interviews for Genealogical Research”
Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library
General advice and links to other guides, including those by the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, and StoryCorps.
“Creating Oral Histories”
Nicely detailed ideas for interview preparation. Includes about 40 well-formulated, open-ended questions.
“50 Questions to Ask Relatives About Family History”
Powell’s questions help illustrate the usefulness of specificity in your questions.
“Family History Questionnaire”
Lake Township (Ohio) Historical Society
Lake Township Historical Society groups its 153 questions by subject, which helps clarify the various life-topics you may want to consider in developing your own questions.
- family relations, responsibilities, conditions
- family income and livelihood
- days, seasons, and special occasions
- friends and games
- transportation and surroundings
- higher education and career
- marriage and later life
- philosophy and outlook
Tracey Carrington Converse (reprinted from the now-defunct Genealogy Records Service)
Also categorizes its 175 questions, but with somewhat different categories.
“Genealogy Interview Questions”
Also categorizes its 140 questions. I especially like their category for “Growing up on a farm.”
“25 Family History Questions You’ll Really Want to Ask”
Esther [no further identification given]
Particularly unusual questions.
“Genealogy: 150 Questions to Ask Family Members About Their Lives”
The questions reprinted here are from a now-defunct Lucier Family webpage. In fact, almost all of the lists I consulted seem to have been at least partially cribbed from another.
After considering those hundreds of questions, I winnowed my own list down to 35 questions. I’d certainly like the answers to more, but who could bear to be asked 150 questions in one sitting? Or even two? Certainly not I. If the questions do their jobs, a relative few will trigger memories and prompt stories that will transform your interview into a family heirloom.
Following are the 35 questions I’ll be asking this weekend, a list that may evolve with more experience.
- What was your full name at birth, and why were you named that?
- Did you have a nickname growing up? Why were you called that?
- When and where were you born?
- What is your earliest memory?
- Where was the first home you remember? What was it like?
- What chore did you really hate doing as a child?
- Who was your favorite teacher? Why?
- What was your favorite outfit to wear to school?
- What was your first job?
- If you served in the military, when and where did you serve? What was your rank? What were your duties?
- What do you remember of your first date?
- Where and when did you get married? (date, place, church, etc.)
- When and where did your spouse die?
- What advice would you now give to yourself on your first wedding day?
- How did you find out you were going to be a parent for the first time?
- Why did you give your children the names you did?
- What advice do you have for your children or grandchildren about being a parent?
- Do you remember your grandparents?
- Do you remember your great-grandparents?
- Who was the oldest relative you remember as a child?
- Who is the most distant ancestor you heard about?
- What health problems do you have that are considered hereditary?
- How is the world different from when you were a kid?
- Do you remember your family discussing world events and politics?
- How would you describeyourself politically? Why?
- What person really changed the course of your life by something he/she did?
- What is the most beautiful place you have ever visited?
- What is the scariest thing that ever happened to you?
- What sound do you love?
- Describe a time and place you remember feeling truly at peace and happy to be alive?
- What pets have you had?
- Is there anything you have always wanted to do but haven’t?
- What is the single most memorable moment of your life?
- What is the one thing you most want people to remember about you?
- Is there anything you wanted to be asked that I haven’t asked you?
What questions do you have for your relatives before it’s too late to ask them?