Family History Interviews: FAQ

by Sunny McClellan Morton | Aug 7, 2012

Sunny McClellan Morton

Have you ever found a single genealogical source that's packed with family names, relationships, dates, personalities and stories? Even better, did this source respond when you asked it to identify family photos? If so, you've probably conducted a family history interview. So you already know that one person can say more in an hour than you might find in weeks of library research.

Yet even the most experienced researcher doesn't always interview those we should--or do a thorough job of it. Interviews can be inconvenient to schedule, intimidating to conduct, and tricky to record. Subjects may hesitate to open up--or never stop talking. What they say isn't always true. But it's still worth doing those interviews! Read through these frequently asked questions for tips on improving the questions you ask.

Q: How do you choose who to interview?

A: Sometimes this isn't a big choice: one relative has simply lived long enough to become your desired "window to the past." Other times, you have to prioritize. Is someone especially elderly or failing in health or memory? Interview her immediately, even if you don't plan to do anything with her comments in the near future. Are you working on a research problem that a particular relative may be able to help with? Pick up the phone and start chatting. Finally, who's always been around but doesn't speak up much? These folks may know plenty, and may appreciate someone caring about their memories. (Don't forget in-laws! They often know a lot about the family.)

Q: What topics should you plan to cover?

A: Usually you'll be looking for information about that person's life, their personal knowledge of other relatives' lives, or passed-on hearsay about the distant past. Don't try to capture all that in one marathon interview. Instead, focus on what you most want to learn, and what you think you can cover in 1-2 hours. (Any longer, and you'll turn a pleasant stroll down memory lane into a breath-sapping interrogational sprint.) For example, in that timeframe you could probably cover that person's childhood memories in some detail, or what she knows about her father's family.

Q: Any tips for setting up the interview?

A: When you request an interview, you set the tone for the conversation that will follow. Be friendly and respectful. Express your sincere interest in their memories. Ask whether the person is willing and able to talk about the topics you want to cover (if not, figure out mutually agreeable topics). Be prepared to answer questions about how you're going to record the conversation, what you're going to do with what they tell you and how you'll respect off-the-record comments. Set up a time and place that will allow both of you to relax and concentrate on the conversation.

Q: How do I prepare good questions?

A: The better your questions, the better the answers you may get. Prepare open-ended questions rather than "yes" or "no" questions. For example, rephrase "Do you remember your grandma?" as "What do you remember about your grandma?" Also, make sure your questions won't put them on the defensive, (like "How could your father do that?"). If you'll be covering a topic you don't know well--like the Vietnam War--do some background reading. For question ideas, turn to a web resource like StoryCorps or use a life story writing guide like my book My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories (which includes heritage questions).

Q: How should I record the conversation?

A: Videos captures people's expressions, emotions and voices, but can be intimidating to the person being interviewed. Audio recordings don't capture images, but can be less intrusive and therefore make your subject more comfortable. Practice with your equipment ahead of time so you can use it confidently; bring extra batteries. Choose digital audio or video recording methods, if possible. These files are easy to work with, archive and share with others. If you record with audio or video tape, copy it to a digital format as soon as possible. If you can't record the conversation, take notes. At the beginning of the interview, record a brief bit of conversation, then play it back. Is there noise from passing traffic, competing conversations or a ceiling fan? Can you hear both voices clearly?

Q: How can I make my subject more comfortable during the interview?

A: Be relaxed and confident yourself, and your subject will more likely relax, too. Look him in the eye. Smile. Take interest in him personally, even if your interview is about someone else. Don't shove a recorder right in his face or shine a bright light in his eyes. Try to have a comfortable spot for both of you to sit. Don't rush the questions--silence on the tape doesn't matter. Listen to what they say rather than focus on your next question. Show empathy and interest with your voice, expressions and body language.

Q: What if my subject goes off on a tangent?

A: Let her--for a little bit. Sometimes the person's tangent will give you the best information of the interview. Certainly don't cut someone off every time she says something that doesn't immediately interest you. If her line of thinking clearly isn't going anywhere, gently steer the conversation back on track. Smile and say, "I want to go back to something you said earlier...." Remember not to go off on a tangent yourself. You're not trading stories: you're gathering hers. Keep the emphasis on her.

Q: What if my subject is a person of few words?

A: It can take patient coaxing to get the "strong, silent types" to talk. Sometimes, a short answer is just as good as a long one. Other times, you're looking for more detail. Let's say you asked your subject what his grandmother was like, and he doesn't seem sure how to answer. Rephrase the question, or ask a more specific one. "What did she look like? How did she treat others? What things do you remember her doing?" If his answer is, "I didn't know her well; we only met a few times," you might follow up with questions like, "Do you recall how old you were when you met (or on what occasions)?" or "What do you recall your father saying about his mother?" But you might just need to find a better subject to talk about. If an otherwise chatty subject clams up on a particular topic, this may be his way of telling you he doesn't want to talk about it. Respect these boundaries.

Q: Any other technical details?

A: Yes. If you're recording the conversation, identify it clearly when you begin: "I am Sunny Morton, speaking with Deborah Johnson on October 1, 2012 at her home in Cleveland, Ohio." If needed, identify the subject: "the granddaughter of Miles Johnson." If your subject asks you to turn off the recorder or stop taking notes to share confidential information, do it immediately, but don't forget you've done so. When the sensitive topic has passed, ask permission to turn it back on. Label the digital file, tape or interview notes clearly and share copies with others for safekeeping. If you keep paper files, put a copy of the interview on a CD in the appropriate file. Offer a copy to your interview subject.

Q: What do I do after the interview?

A: Have a plan for this interview from the get-go and follow through with it. If you are just gleaning information about other family members, your plan may be as simple as preserving the recording and extracting only the material relevant to your research. If your research focuses significantly on this person's life, plan to transcribe the entire interview. (Learn more in my article " Transcription Tricks ".)

In the end, an interview just isn't about collecting data or padding a family history writing project with quotes. Interviewing a relative can mean a lot to him or her. Spending time together and asking for that person's memories, opinions, and stories shows that you value him or her. That's when genealogy research does double duty: it strengthens connections among the living as well as with those who have gone before.

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