Interviewing Family Members

By Lisa Louise Cooke Premium


The first time I met my second cousin Carolyn over the phone, I was struck by her quiet demeanor and soft Southern drawl. But I soon learned that under that gentle persona was an effective and tenacious family history interviewer. Carolyn is fearless. She identifies her goals, prepares her questions and then starts dialing the phone. She would make any telemarketer proud of her ability to overcome her fears and cold call unknown relatives. Her effectiveness is amplified when she conducts the interview in person.
My cousin’s efforts have paid off in big ways. She established a new relationship with a cousin who was put up for adoption 50 year ago. At the end of another interview, a newly found relative was so impressed with her sensitivity that she gave Carolyn a large gilt-framed portrait of her great-grandfather.
Although Carolyn doesn’t claim to have a formal interview process, she naturally employs many good interviewing strategies—strategies you can use to connect with your relatives and reap the genealogical rewards. Just follow our eight steps for conducting successful family interviews.

1. Identify relatives to interview.

Start by putting together a list of the relatives (or in journalism terms, “sources”) you want to interview. Don’t stop with your elderly great-aunts and -uncles; consider parents, cousins and siblings. Even though they’re your age, other members of your generation may have heard different family stories and inherited different photos than you did.
Next, determine how you want to prioritize which family members to interview first. Age may be a deciding factor, so contact your oldest relatives as soon as you can. If you live far apart, don’t wait until you get the opportunity to make the trip. Begin with a telephone interview and follow up in person when circumstances permit. It isn’t necessary to cover everything in one interview; in fact, that may not even be the best approach with an elderly relative—it could be overwhelming. Continue to prioritize your interview list by considering such factors as your relatives’ health, family members who might have information on family mysteries you are trying to solve, and relatives whose stories you most want to learn more about.

Can’t think of relatives to interview? Consider close family friends, a priest or rabbi, neighbors, coworkers and military buddies. Even a few quick questions can yield insights into a parent or grandparent’s personality.

2. Schedule an appointment.

Procrastination is one of the biggest obstacles you’ll face in interviewing, so just do it: Pick up the phone or email the relative you want to interview and schedule an appointment. It helps to introduce yourself as “so-and-so’s oldest daughter” if the person knows who your mom or dad is, and say, “I’m interested in our family history, and I’d like to ask you a few questions about it when you have some time.”

You also could have another relative you both know make the first contact, and then follow up with a call and say, “I’m the person Jill called you about.” If you live in different time zones, make sure you’re clear on the interview time in both your and your source’s locations.

3. Prepare and practice your questions.

Because time is limited, preparation is key to interview success. You may get only one shot at each family history interview, so careful preparation will ensure you don’t miss an important scoop.
Start by determining the goal of your interview. What’s the outcome you want? What information is most important for you to obtain? Next, make a list of topics that you’ve been eager to learn more about and develop questions that address them. Write specific, open-ended questions covering areas such as the relative’s military service, first job, family traditions, childhood memories, education, marriage, parents and grandparents, siblings, and so on. Consult the list of suggested questions on page 49 for ideas. Finally, group your questions by topic and prioritize them. You might not get to ask everything, so be sure you know which questions are the most important to cover. And remember, if you ask a question that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no,” that’s the response you’ll get.

As a genealogy speaker, I practice and record myself giving presentations to work out the kinks. If you’re a rookie interviewer, do what lecturers do and conduct a test run. Invite a friend to help you do a practice interview. Not only will you learn what works well and what doesn’t, but you will also learn more about your buddy and ensure your recording devices work properly.

4. Gather your supplies.

As with any type of project, having the right tools makes the job easier. Here’s a list of equipment to consider:

n Audio and/or video recorder: When I’m on the road conducting interviews, my audio recorder of choice is an Olympus handheld digital recorder. But your smartphone, iPad or other tablet computer and an app such as SpeakEasy Voice Reorder by Zarboo Software can do a respectable job. Or you could record your interview with a video recorder or the webcam on your tablet or smartphone.
For a telephone interview, you can use a digital recorder hooked up to a telephone handset recording device (usually available through office supply stores), or if you’re talking on your smartphone, use an app such as Call Recorder. If you’re using an online phone service such as Skype, you can purchase software such as Call Recorder to record the conversation. Whatever setup you use, test it ahead of time to make sure it’ll work smoothly.
  • Microphone: Depending on the recording device you choose, you could consider also getting a lapel or extension microphone. Lapel and tabletop extension microphones may offer much clearer sound quality than the built-in microphones on a tablet, smartphone or video camera. If you use a standalone digital recorder, the built-in mic is often sufficient.
  • Power cords and backup batteries: Remember to charge or put new batteries in all your devices before the interview begins, and bring the power cords with you in case your interview runs longer than expected or the batteries die. You also may want to pack an extension cord, since you never know where the nearest electrical outlet will be.
  • Portable scanner: A portable scanner such as the Flip-Pal is a lifesaver when your relative starts unexpectedly pulling out old family photos and documents.

  • Two bottles of water: Bring a bottle of water for each of you. As a professional speaker, I’ve learned that ice-cold water tightens the throat, so avoid overchilling it.

  • Notebook and pen: You never know when your recording device may fail, so keep notes throughout the interview. Additionally, you’ll want to jot down notes on spellings, follow-up questions and other folks to interview.
  • Prepared notes or family tree charts: In addition to your questions, bring a chronological outline of your interviewee’s life for reference. I also like to have a family tree chart and family group sheets so I can keep the family straight and let my source fill in the necessary blanks.
  • Family memorabilia: Introducing memorabilia into the interview is a great way to jog memories or assist your source in expanding on them. You also might get some IDs for unfamiliar names and faces. Possible mementos to tuck in your bag include photographs, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, yearbooks and maps. If you’re audio recording, be sure to describe aloud the item you’re showing the interviewee.

5. Set up for the interview.

Whenever you’re conducting an interview in person, try to set up your interview environment before your interviewee arrives. If you leave the source standing there while you fiddle with cords and chairs, he may get nervous while he waits.
Once you both sit down (or connect via phone) for the interview, but before the recorder is rolling, thank your relative for his time, share with him what it means to you, provide a brief recap of what to expect during the interview and let him ask you any questions. If you’re interviewing someone over the phone, let the person know you’d like to record the call.
If the source is reluctant to be recorded (a typical objection is “I hate the way my voice sounds on recordings”), do a quick test recording and reassure the source that he sounds the same to you recorded as in person. Suggest you get started and see how it goes. Once the conversation begins, the concern likely will be forgotten.

When you turn on the recorder, say your name, the date, location and who you are with. Then play it back and adjust the volume and microphone position if necessary.

6. Conduct the conversation.

Sometimes it helps if you start with “easy” questions to let your interviewee get comfortable, and build up to more complex, personal or sensitive topics. Here’s a great opener: Ask him to retell a favorite story he’s told many times before. The energy in the room will quickly pick up as he launches into the tale.
Basic genealogical questions that cover family history facts—such as “What was Grandma’s maiden name?” and “Where was your dad born?”—are often good to start with, too. Once you get all the factual answers you want, guide the source back in time with a segue such as, “OK, now that we’ve got that information, let me take you back …” This technique releases the interviewee from the facts and draws him back in time to memories of the past.
Your prepared questions will get the ball rolling, but allow the conversation to follow its natural course. You can probe deeper into interesting topics that come up—while also tapping into the emotional side of your relative’s memories—with these questions:
  • How did you feel when that happened?
  • So what would that look like?
  • Can you give me an example of how that played out?
  • How surprised were you when that happened?
  • What did others say about that?
  • Then what happened?
If you’re getting generalized answers, try repeating what you heard to clarify, and then give the source an opportunity to expand. Or probe him to remember conversations from the past by asking a question such as, “What did she say when you told her you were joining the Army?” Returning to the conversation can bring back more memories.
Don’t fear silence during the interview. If your source seems to be struggling for an answer, reassure him it’s OK to sit quietly for a moment to think about the question. Then restate the question (perhaps in a different way).
Additionally, don’t be discouraged by the answer, “I don’t know.” What the person may really be saying is that an answer isn’t coming to mind or that he’s uncomfortable thinking about the topic. Try approaching the question from a different angle, or introduce one of the memorabilia items you brought with you, such as a photograph.
Throughout the conversation, be sure to ask for spellings of names and other words that need clarification. Try to do so with as little disruption as possible, quickly redirecting the conversation back to the last thing the interviewee said.

Take breaks as needed during the interview. If a conversation is flowing well it can be tempting to forge ahead without a rest, but resist the temptation. Ask your source how he’s doing. He may be too shy to ask for a break, but then later become restless. Stay ahead of the game and budget downtime.

7. Wrap it up.

Before signing off, end your session with one or both of these common wrap-up questions: “Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?” and “Is there a question you’re surprised I didn’t ask?” These types of closers will help prevent you from leaving behind a precious family history gem.

After the interview concludes, thank your relative again and consider leaving a small gift of family history. I like to give a hardcover photo book that focuses on stories in my family’s history. This is easy to create online with print-on-demand services such as Shutterfly and Snapfish (see our article on preserving newspaper clippings for more on these services). These books are not only a nice thank-you gift; they also help your relative visualize your commitment to family history and feel confident in his decision to share with you.

8. Follow up.

After interviews, my cousin Carolyn always sends a handwritten thank-you note. In today’s email-centric world, her interviewees always appreciate this personal gesture.
It can be a satisfying feeling to return home with armloads of notes and hours of audio recordings or video footage. But your work as family historian has just begun. Now is the time to organize your notes and enter information into your genealogy database. Be sure to cite the interview as a source, following this example: “Ethel Leigh (Carter) Schmidt. Oral interview, 5 June 2013, by Jeannie A. Ologist at Great Oaks Retirement Home in Great Oaks, Ga. Digital recording and partial transcription in possession of Jeannie A. Ologist, Atlanta, Ga.”
Because memories can be fuzzy and colored by personal perspective, research historical records to try to confirm any new information your source provided. Formulate your next research steps: Did your interview lead to new theories as to when Great-uncle Fred died or reveal a family event that might’ve been covered in the local paper? Did your interviewee mention another person you should talk to?

If you plan to transcribe all or parts of the conversation, it’s best to do so while it’s still fresh in your mind. Consider sharing select stories with other relatives (with your interviewee’s permission) so they’re sure to be passed on.

Now that you have one successful interview under your belt, call the next person on your list. With some careful planning, empathy for your sources and disciplined follow-up, you’ll be on the road to interviewing success. And who knows? Maybe you’ll uncover some breaking family news along the way.
Tip: Avoid compound questions such as “Where did 
you live and did you like living there?” Instead, ask 
the core question that takes you directly to the topic 
such as “What did you like about living in Denver?”

Supply List

  • prepared list of interview questions
  • memorabilia and family photos
  • family tree chart and family group sheets
  • notepad
  • pen
  • digital voice recorder, smartphone with recording app or video recorder
telephone handset recorder (for phone interviews)
  • extension or lapel microphone (optional)
  • backup batteries
  • power cords
  • extension cord
  • portable scanner (optional)
  • bottled water

Getting the Exclusive
If you’re having a difficult time developing questions to uncover family history information, consider starting with these questions, arranged by topic:


  • Who were you closest to in your family?
  • What values and beliefs did your parents teach you?
  • How did your parents discipline you?
  • Who were your heroes as a child? Why?
If you could relive one day from your childhood, 
what day would that be?


  • Who was your favorite teacher?
  • What was your favorite subject?
  • What was your least favorite subject?
  • What got you in trouble most often?


  • How did you meet your spouse?
  • What first caught your eye about your spouse?
  • When did you know your spouse was the one for you?
  • What was your wedding and reception like?
  • Were there any surprises?


  • What was your first job?
  • How did you get into your career?
  • What was your favorite job?
  • What was your least favorite job?


  • Tell me a funny story about your family.
  • What recipes did your mom make that you still 
make today?
  • Who was the family storyteller when you were 
growing up?
  • What types of family reunions or special family outings did you attend?
  • What traditions did your family have for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or holidays?

Major events

Choose a big event from the news that happened during the relative’s lifetime (such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot), and use the following questions to spur your relative’s memory:
  • Where were you when this happened?
  • How did it affect your life?
  • How did you feel about it?
* * *
Over the past five years, Lisa Louise Cooke has conducted hundreds of interviews for Family Tree Magazine podcasts and the Genealogy Gems Podcast.
From the January/February 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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