16 Tips for Interviewing People about Your Family

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium
Whether you’ve lost touch with a second cousin or you’re seeking more-distant relatives to provide clues about your family’s past, use these strategies to make contact with long-lost kin.

  1. Use a web search engine such as Google <> or Bing <> to locate a person’s contact information. Try searching on his or her name, location and applicable keywords such as WWII veteran or doctor.
  2. Search <> and phone directories in the last-known area of residence. If the family name is unusual, try calling everyone in the town with that particular surname.
  3. Post inquiries on genealogy websites. List as many family names as you know, including spouses’ and children’s names.
  4. Contact an organization to which a relative may have belonged, such as a school, church or veterans or community group. Find schoolmates on <> and <>. Don’t forget Facebook <>, either.
  5. Search the Social Security Death Index <> to check if the person has died. If so, search online for obituaries and newspaper stories, then contact surviving family members through the funeral home or church.
  6. For more ideas, read Lisa Louise Cooke’s article “Undercover Genealogy” from the July 2010 Family Tree Magazine, Locating Lost Family Members and Friends by Kathleen W. Hinckley (Betterway Books) or Find Anyone Fast by Richard S. Johnson and Debra Johnson Knox (Military Information Enterprises).

Here’s how to break the ice and ensure a warm reception:

  1. Introduce yourself briefly: “My name is ___ and I’m researching the ___ family who lived in your area during ___.”
  2. Explain just as briefly why you are contacting the person: “I understand you know a lot about the town’s history” or “I think we have the same great-grandparents.”
  3. Ask for exactly what you want: “I hope to set up a time when we could chat by phone for about 15 minutes about ___” or “Are you able to help me reach someone who might know about ___?”
  4. Keep a record of where you call, with whom you speak and the information gathered.
  5. Be ready to take notes when you call. If you’re requesting an interview, have your questions prepared, even though you’ll likely schedule a return call.
  6. When scheduling a return call for an interview, ask if you can mail or e-mail questions in advance. Get the person’s mailing address, and follow through immediately.
  7. Do not record your first call with someone you don’t know. Always ask permission before recording a telephone interview.
  8. During a first interview, stick to a short list of your most burning questions. Keep the conversation focused so as to get the most out of your time.
  9. When interviewing, listen closely to responses. Ask clarifying questions. Get the spellings of names. Ask who else might be able to provide information about your family.
  10. Thank every lead for his or her time and help. If someone has offered a lot of assistance, send a thank-you note.

From the December 2010 issue of Family Tree Magazine

More great genealogy resources from Family Tree Magazine: