List of Genealogy Interview Questions to Ask Your Family Members
In my hub, How to Conduct a Family History Interview, I talked about methods of getting your family members to talk to you. Many people asked me for a list of questions that they could ask their loved ones to get the maximum benefit of their genealogy interview. Having a prepared list of genealogy interview questions is very important to make sure that you stay focused and get the information you want when you conduct your interview.
I have provided some topics here. You will want to choose some of these questions to ask, and prioritize them. I recommend asking the questions that are interesting to you first, so that if the person answers each question thoroughly but only answers a few questions, your most important questions have been answered. I also recommend having a big list of questions, so that you don't run out in case, in case the person answers quickly and concisely.
One important note you should keep in mind is that you should actually listen to the answer after you have asked the question. I know that this is common sense, but it is easy to get carried away thinking of the next question or just wait to ask the next question. Take the time to listen to the answer, and allow pauses so the interviewee can search his or her memories. If you listen to the answer, you will show that you are interested, and the interviewee will be more open with you instead of rattling off a quick answer. Also by listening, you will be able to think of and ask follow up questions out of curiosity instead of following a script.
Rules of the Interview
Before I start the interview, I let my interviewees know my two rules of the interview.
- You don't have to answer the question just because I asked it. Feel free to say skip. I am not trying to dig up dirt, so if I accidentally hit a sensitive topic, I would be happy to move away from it.
- You won't necessarily know the answer to every question. I would rather ask in case you do know the answer, than not take that chance. If you don't know, that is okay. If you are not sure, it is okay to estimate. Just be sure to let me know that you are not sure.
Let's start with the Basics
I then start the tape recorder or video. I then state my name, the date, and the location. I may also record some additional facts, such as an occasion, and who else is in the house, in case they show up on the tape, etc.
I then start with very simple questions about themselves that are easy to answer. Names, locations, and dates are crucial to have in genealogy, so they are the first things I ask. But it is helpful to mix short answer questions with essay type questions.
- What is your name? Who came up with the name? What does it mean?
- Where and when were you born? Were you born in a hospital?
- Where and when were you married?
- What are your parents' names? Where and when were they born?
- Where do you live? Have you ever lived anywhere else?
- What are your children's' birth dates and where were they born? What are their names?
From here, I generally branch out in one of three ways. I focus on the individual, broaden to the family, or ask about their place in history. I find it difficult to do more than one of these in a single interview. You may consider conducting more than one genealogy interview with the same person or group of people.
Tell Me More about You
One option is to delve deeper into the individual's life and get a full history on them.
- If you wrote an autobiography, what would the chapter headings be?
- What was your childhood like?
- Tell me about your schooling.
- Did you participate in any sports?
- Tell me about your first crush / first love
- How did you meet your spouse?
- Tell me about your hobbies / interests
- When did you buy your first car? What was it like?
- Tell me about the jobs you had as a teenager / young adult
- Tell me about your military service
- Tell me about your jobs / career
- What was it like being a parent?
- What is it like to be retired?
- What were the life changing moments in your life?
- What is your proudest achievement?
- If you could leave one message to tell your great-grandchildren, what would you tell them?
- How do you want to be remembered?
Tell me about Your Family
Another option is to focus on the genealogy and find out about their knowledge of historical information, and get to know about some other individuals in the family. Be sure to ask for birth, marriage and death dates, as well as specific locations, such as cities and counties instead of just states. You may even want to ask them to spell the locations for you so you can make sure you got it down correctly.
- Where did your parents live? What were they like?
- Do you have any brothers and sisters? What are their birth dates and where were they born?
- What are their spouse’s names? Did they have any children?
- What are your grandparents’ names? Do you know where they were born? Where did they live? Are they still alive? When did they die? Where are they buried?
- Tell me about your father's brothers and sisters.
- Tell me about your mother's brothers and sisters.
- Did you meet your great-grandparents? Do you know their names? Do you know where they are from? Do you know where they are buried?
- Are you related to anyone famous?
- Have you or anyone in your family ever been in the news?
- Are there any illnesses which run in the family?
- Do you have any news clippings or Family bible or other documents that will help me with my genealogy?
- I have some old photographs here. Will you help identify the individuals that are in them?
- May I look at your photo albums? Do you mind if I take photos of some of your photographs?
Please also note that you do not have to limit your questions to that side of the family. If you are interviewing your grandfather on your mother's side, for example, you may want to ask them about your grandfather on your father's side. They may know much more than you think, as they may be neighbors or have heard stories.
Let's Discuss Some History
Another main topic is to learn more about history by discussing the a particular part of history that the person has experienced or has particular interest and knowledge. Choose one or a few of these topics, and be sure to prepare some follow up questions as well, based on what you know about the individual and what you want to know about that part of history.
When discussing anything, be sure to keep in mind that you are there to obtain information, so try not too interject your own views into the conversation. The following is a list of basic questions, but as you talk about one of these topics, you will want to develop a list of things you want to know, and be sure to ask new questions based on what they tell you.
- Were you ever in the military? What unit / what war? What was basic training like? Where were you stationed? What job were you assigned to do?
- Were you involved in the civil rights movement?
- Were you a member of any social clubs?
- How has technology changed your life?
- Tell me what it was like to live in the xx decade?
- What was life like for the Germans / Irish / Mexicans who immigrated here?
- How has education changed over the years?
- How has politics changed over the years?
- How did you practice your religion?
- What kind of crafts did you do as a child?
- Have you ever volunteered for a community organization?
- Tell me about your grandmother's cooking. What kinds of tools did she have?
- Have you ever been to a quilting bee? Did anyone in our family quilt?
- How has child raising changed over the years?
- How has this city/town changed over the years?
- Why did our people move from X to Y? What kind of transportation did they use?
- What important finds have you had in your own genealogical pursuit?
- tell me about your travels
- what was it like being a single parent / child of a preacher / community outcast / minority
- May I look at your photo albums? Do you mind if I take photos of some of your photographs?
Showing gratitude to your interviewee for taking the time to give you the information is very important. Leaving them with a thank you gift would be especially appreciated. Here are some ideas for gifts that would be appreciated.
- A food dish, especially one that has significance in the family, with a recipe card
- A calendar showing all the birth dates of family members (no years please!)
- A descendant or ancestor chart, beautifully printed and framed
- A copy of an old photograph of an ancestor
- Copies of photos you have taken of your interviewee in the past. She might not have seen them and will be pleased to have a historical memory
- A copy of an interesting family history document, such as an old marriage license or land map
- Chocolate (generic but always appreciated!)
If you can't or don't give them a gift at the time of the interview, you can always mail a thank you card with a transcript of the interview or copy of photographs you have taken.
Family History Interview Questions
This list of interview questions is just a start of the many different things you can ask an individual. You should tailor them to the person's life history, and your interests. Each person is a treasure trove of knowledge, and you will want to make sure that you mine as much of that information as you can.
© 2012 Shasta Matova
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