13 Tips for Oral History Interviewing

By Diane Haddad Premium

Interviewing family members is one of the first steps to discovering your family history. It’s also the step people most often regret not taking—we’ve heard countless researchers say “I wish I’d asked Dad while he was around.”

Maybe you think there’s no one left to interview, or you’re reluctant to call Great-aunt Mary and pepper her with questions. Then, how do you record the interview and cite it as a source? We’re here to help with oral history interviewing advice.

1. Don’t just look at the interview as an opportunity to do genealogical research. Rather, see it as a chance to spend time with a family member and let him or her talk about his life. The family stories and information will follow.

2. Start by interviewing older folks in the family, but don’t stop there. Also talk to people in your generation (their parents may have talked more or told different stories than your parents did), family friends, and neighbors.

3. When you call to schedule your visit, say, “I’d like to find out more about our family history, and I was hoping you’d tell me some of the old stories.” Ask if you can see your relative’s old photos during the visit. If the relative doesn’t know you well, it may help to bring along someone more familiar to him. You even could let that person make an introductory call on your behalf.

4. Your relative may become frustrated if you interrogate him about names and dates he doesn’t remember. Instead, get him talking and insert name-and-date questions where appropriate. For example, when your grandfather’s talking about how his parents met, ask, “Do you remember your mom’s maiden name?” or “When did they get married?”

. Prepare a list of questions, but use it as a guide, not a rigid framework. It’s OK if the conversation leads to topics not on the list. You may hear surprising genealogical details and stories. If the interview ranges far off course, you can gently redirect it. As your questions are answered during the course of the conversation, check them off.

6. Sometimes a reticent relative will open up if you’re doing some activity together, such as taking a walk, knitting or fishing. Also try these questions from Hindsight Media to draw out the person:

• What did you do during the summer months when you were a child?
• Did you have pets?
• What are your strongest sibling memories?
• What did you think you wanted to be when you grew up? Did it change, or come true?
• What did you do on dates?
• Did you ever have a boyfriend/girlfriend your parents didn’t approve of?
• How were your grades in school?
• What was your first job and how did you get it? Did you ever get fired or promoted?
• What is the secret to a good relationship? (If the person is or was married.)
• How are you like your parents? How are you different?
• Who knows you better than anyone?
• What makes you laugh the hardest?
• What is the bravest thing you have ever done? The scariest? The dumbest?
• What would I be surprised to learn about you?
• What was to hardest decision in your life?
• How did World War II affect your family?
• What does it take to be a good parent?

7. Looking at old photos can spark memories, so bring along several showing the people you want to ask about. Bring a family tree, too.

8. If your relative has old photos, bring your scanner and ask permission to scan them. Offer to digitally repair any tears or creases (if you’re able to) and make prints or put them on CDs to share.

9. Jot down pertinent details during the interview, but writing the whole time is distracting. Instead, ask permission to use a digital recorder or videocamera. Test the equipment before you leave home, and bring extra batteries. Promise the recording for informational purposes and you’ll share it only with family, if anyone. If the person is uncomfortable, don’t record the conversation. Then you’ll have to take plenty of notes, and stop on the way home to write down more of what you remember fromt the conversation.

10. Never be without a notepad and pen at a family gathering. Family history can come up during the most casual conversations over dinner or during halftime.

11. Transcribe the interview while it’s fresh in your head. You could write out the whole thing, or listen to it and just transcribe parts you’re interested in. You also can have a transcription service such as Tapescribe do this for you, but if the interview’s on tape, send a copy and keep the original.

12. To cite information from the interview in your genealogy software, follow this format:

Title: Oral interview with Holly Ann (Schmidt) Devereaux of Fort Wilson, KS,
10 Feb. 1997
Author: Ellen Schmidt, interviewer
Publisher: Notes by Ellen Schmidt
Location: Ellen Schmidt, Dayton, Ohio

13. Don’t forget to send a handwritten thank-you note within a few days of the interview.