Strategies for Interviewing Relatives

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

When I started to research my family history, I dutifully interviewed my grandmother, asking her questions like when and where she was born, the names of her parents, when and where they were born, the names and birth dates of her siblings, the names of her grandparents and when and where they were born and died. Then, as all the genealogy how-to books advised, I verified everything she told me in one record or another.

I hated doing oral history interviews. My grandmother hated being interviewed.

It was a long, long time before I tried again. By then, Grandma was gone, so I interviewed her cousin Isabel. I followed the same procedure, asking about names, dates and places. Finally Isabel had enough of my pestering for facts: “Please don’t ask me any more questions,” she said. “I’ve told you everything I know.” She stopped answering my letters, and when I called she pretended I had the wrong number.

So much for quizzing relatives for genealogical data. Besides, why bother asking questions I could find the answers to in a record somewhere? What was the point?

Then I met a social historian who taught me a better way of doing oral history interviewing — the oral historian’s way. Instead of asking who, where and when, I should have been asking why, how and what. I learned to unlock my relatives’ memories and to tap the family history that’s not in the record books — people’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. Trust me, the census record enumerating Great-uncle Mortimer’s family will still be around long after we’re all dead and gone. But the sense of what life was like in the past, the memories that make a person unique, will go to the grave with that person — unless you ask the right questions.

The right questions to ask in an oral history interview go beyond “just the facts, ma’am”:

Notice that none of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” These questions require the person to think about the answers and will give you information that’s more interesting than dry names and dates.

From who to why

When I interviewed my grandmother and poor Isabel, I was laboring under another misconception: that the right time to interview your relatives is when you’re just beginning to research your family history. Actually, you should talk to relatives at least twice: once when you first begin, then again after you have gathered quite a bit of research.

The first interview should be short. Your goal is to gather the facts — names, approximate dates, places, stories about the origins of the family — so you can begin researching in records. But don’t belabor this interview, and let your relative know your limited goal. You’ll be back again for more after you’ve done some research and found some records.

Focus the second interview on augmenting information in the records and getting historical content based on that person’s life. Anything Great-aunt Esmeralda tells you about ancestors beyond her lifetime is just hearsay anyway. Concentrate on getting stories based on her own lifetime and what she remembers about the oldest people in her life.

You should prepare for this interview by thinking of questions you’ll ask on events, emotions and what you found in the records, asking why did this happen, how did you feel about it, and what was it like? My favorite book for helping me to prepare questions is William Fletcher’s Recording Your Family History (Ten Speed Press). He subdivides questions into these categories:

I use the questions Fletcher provides as a starting point, then tailor the questions to the individual I’m interviewing based on my prior or research knowledge. I write these questions out in advance, but I’m prepared to deviate if the person gives me details about a topic I hadn’t considered. For example, a general question might be “Where did your father go to college?” Since I knew my subject’s father went to Princeton, instead I asked her, “Did your father ever tell you stories about his Princeton years?” Even though I knew what her father did for a living, I still asked, “What kind of work did your father do?” to get her interpretation.

Getting them to talk

Before I actually begin interviews, I explain to my subjects that not all the material will be used in the family history I write and that they’ll have a chance to see and approve what I write before it’s published or distributed to other family members. You can’t own another person’s memories. Get written permission to use the material if you plan to publish or distribute parts of the interview.

I also try to put my interview “victims” at ease by telling them that they don’t have to answer all the questions I ask. If it’s too personal, just tell me. And if they later regret telling me something, they can contact me and I won’t include it. This happened after an interview I did with a lady who commissioned me to write her family history. During the interview, she told me how she and her daughter didn’t get along. Afterward, she had second thoughts about seeing that in print, so I left it out. Remember, you’re a family historian, not someone out to write an expose.

You can also put your subject at ease by beginning with a fun, easy question. If I know the person is also interested in genealogy, I ask how he became curious about his ancestry. Typically, fellow genealogy buffs make enthusiastic interview subjects. If I have a reluctant interviewee, however, who can’t imagine why I’d want to interview him, I might begin by asking what he does for a living or about one of his hobbies or the family pet.

My aunt was one of those reluctant interviewees. She dreaded coming for a visit because she knew I wanted to interview her. By the second day, however, she informed her daughter who had come along, “You’ll have to find something to do to entertain yourself. Sharon and I are going to do more interviewing because this is important, and we have to get this done.” Usually, once the reluctant subject sees that I’m not asking for facts — especially about people long dead and buried — but instead for stories about her life and her memories of her parents and grandparents, the “victim” relaxes and thoroughly enjoys the attention.

An interview shouldn’t last longer than an hour or two at a stretch. It’s tiring for you and the person being interviewed. If you’re with the relative only for a day or so, take frequent breaks during the interview, since an intensive interview like this can total six to eight hours. You may want to break up the interview with a visit to the cemetery or a walk around the old neighborhood to get more stories.

Try to interview only one person at a time, alone. People tend to talk over one another and finish each other’s sentences — especially couples who’ve been married a lifetime — making it hard for you to keep up. If you’re taping the interview, it’s more difficult to transcribe or take notes from the tape with several people talking.

Taping and notetaking

If the interviewee doesn’t mind, it’s always a good idea to tape the interview, but you should also take notes. Don’t rely solely on the tape recorder. I’ve had recorders malfunction and lost portions of an interview because I wasn’t taking notes. Recently I purchased a new tape recorder and was happily interviewing; then it dawned on me that we’d been going longer than the half hour for that side of the tape. The machine had come to the end of the tape, but it didn’t click off. My subject and I had to reconstruct about 20 minutes of the interview. If I’d been taking notes, that wouldn’t have been necessary.

Make a double-spaced printout of the questions you’re planning to ask, then jot down answers and notes next to the questions. You’ll want to verify spellings of names, places or unusual or archaic words, but do this at the end of the interview or at the end of a story — don’t interrupt the speaker’s flow.

Include in your notes a description of where you’re conducting the interview. Detail what your subject is wearing, how she looks, whether she smiles over one question and frowns at another, how she fidgets. All these traits show personality, and unless you’re videotaping, you won’t get these recorded.

Audio taping, rather than videotaping, is the least intrusive to the interview. While videotaping (see page 30) can capture a person’s look, facial expressions and personality, some people are more intimidated by a camera than a tape recorder and behave unnamrally.

Always begin each tape with your name, the name of the person being interviewed, how you’re related, the date of the interview, whether this is tape number 1 or 21, and where the interview is taking place. Also record this information on the tape or cassette case.

Getting personal

Some of the best questions to ask are personal — questions that may be slightly embarrassing or make the subject laugh or cry. These are the questions no one has had the nerve to ask, the answers to which you won’t find recorded anywhere, except maybe in a diary. Obviously, you don’t want to start the interview with a question like, “So tell me what you and your husband used for birth control in the 1940s.” Or, “Tell me about the automobile accident your son died in last year.” Interviewing requires sensitivity and a sixth sense of what you can ask and when.

Often I’ll phrase potentially embarrassing questions so they sound general, not personal: “Were many teenage girls in your day having premarital sex?” You may be shocked by the bluntness of the answer, though. One elderly lady responded to this question with, “Oh, sure, my boyfriend and I did it.” Another lady told me much more about her sex life than I really wanted to know — but only after I turned off the tape recorder.

And move over, Barbara Walters — I can make the person I’m interviewing cry, too, though that’s never my intention. You just never know what question may trigger an emotional response. In one interview, the question that triggered the tears was, “Tell me how you heard World War II had begun.” The tears took us both by surprise, but I just let her cry and waited while she composed herself. Uncomfortable? You bet. Hard to wait out the tears? Incredibly. Now I know how my therapist feels.

Photographs and memories

An oral history interview is the perfect time to bring along old photographs or ask your subject if he or she has any. Ask your interviewee to tell you about the people in the photograph and where and when it was taken. If your subject is also in the photo, ask if she remembers the events that led to the photograph being taken. Was it a special occasion? Did some people not want to be in the photograph? If so, who else was there? Who suggested the pose? What was the conversation before and after the photograph? Yes, these are tough questions, and it will be the rare person who can remember all these details. But it’s always worth asking.

Also ask about family artifacts. My grandmother’s cousin, Isabel, has the tea set my great-grandmother brought with her from Italy in 1910. I wanted to know whether it had been a wedding present or held some other special meaning and how often the set was used — on special occasions or every day. Perhaps there are interesting stories surrounding an item in your family.

Bring out photocopies of the documents you’ve been gathering and show them to your relatives. Isabel had never seen her name on the passenger arrival list when she came to this country. She got teary-eyed when I showed it to her, and even more excited when I gave her her own copy.

Using oral history

So what do you do with your interview materials after you leave your relative’s house? First, you’ll either need to transcribe your tapes or, if you didn’t take notes during the interview, you should make notes from the tapes. Keeping the interview only on tape limits its usefulness to you and your descendants. Technology changes too fast, and the shelf life of an audio- or videotape is only about 10 years before it begins to deteriorate. The printed word is still the most widely used — and reliable — form of preserving history.

Transcribing entire tapes is incredibly time-consuming. To transcribe, edit and proof the transcript against the tape and make a final copy, plan to spend about 22-25 hours for every hour of an interview. I’ve never transcribed an oral history tape; instead, I take notes from the tape and pull particularly interesting quotes.

Once you have your notes or a transcript, you can combine information from the interview with the records you have researched and the general, relevant historical context to write a narrative account as part of the family history. Here’s an example using oral history, a death certificate and historical information on tuberculosis:

Mary remembers visiting her cousin Ralph who had tuberculosis. “We used to visit him in the sanatorium. It was like a hospital, and because we were too young and it was a contagious disease, we weren’t allowed to go up and see him. But he used to wave to us from the window as we played on the grounds.” Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the 19th century and into the 20th century, when Ralph died from the disease in 1946. Not until 1882 was the tubercle bacillus identified, and doctors realized that the disease was infectious. Confining tuberculin patients in sanatoriums became popular in the late 1890s.

Using footnotes or endnotes, make sure your readers and descendants know where all the information came from. For example:

Oral history interview with Mary Bart, October31, 1997, Simla, Colo.; death certificate, Register of Deaths, Harrison, N. Y; Sheila M. Rothman, Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). 2, 4, 6. 179.

No source you consult while doing your genealogy is 100 percent accurate. Any record, from a birth certificate to even a tombstone, can be wrong. Oral history is no more or less reliable. Yes, memories are prone to lapses, distortions and mistakes. But it depends on the type of information you’re seeking: If you’re asking Great-uncle Mortimer the dates when all 12 of his brothers and sisters were born, or when they all got married, then you’re also asking for trouble. If you’re asking him to recount memories of the first car he owned — how did it smell? what did it feel like to get behind the wheel? what color and make was it? where did you first drive it to? — then you’re on pretty safe ground.

You’ll also find that talking to Great-uncle Mortimer about his memories can be personally rewarding — both for you and for your interview subject. Despite my rocky start as an oral history interviewer, I’ve come to really enjoy it. I now think of myself more as an oral history therapist, because it’s so therapeutic for people to have my full attention for the length of the interview and to reflect on their lives and the lives of their parents and grandparents. One person I interviewed said I asked tough questions — “tough” because I made him think about his relationships, attitudes and feelings. Even though we both walked away from the interview feeling mentally drained, we felt good and knew we’d captured something that would have been lost otherwise.

As you prepare for an oral history interview, think of this African proverb: “When an old person dies, a whole library disappears.” Don’t let these libraries of memories disappear. With oral history interviewing, you can ensure that the why, how and what of your family’s past will be remembered forever.

On the bookshelf


Family Tales, Family Wisdom: How to Gather the Stories of a Lifetime and Share Them With Your Family by Robert U. Akeret (Henry Holt)

Transcribing and Editing Oral History by Willa Baum (Altamira Press)

• “Searching at Home and Talking With Relatives,” in The Genealogy Sourcebook by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Lowell House)

Oral History: From Tape to Type by Cullom Davis, Kathryn Back and Kay MacLean (American Library Association)

Record and Remember: Tracing Your Roots Through Oral History by Ellen Epstein and Jane Lewit Lanham (Scarborough House)

Recording Your Family History: A Guide to Preserving Oral History Using Audio and Video Tape by William Fletcher (Ten Speed Press)

Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You by David E. Kyvig and Myron A. Marty (Altamira Press)

Video Family History by Duane and Pat Strum (Ancestry)

How to Tape Instant Oral Biographies by Bill Zimmerman (Betterway Books)
From the April 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine