Posted by Erika Manternach on September 10, 2017 in ProGenealogists

National Grandparents Day is celebrated in the U.S. and the U.K. on September 10 this year. The occasion presents a perfect opportunity to honor the elders in our families, but what is the best way to do so? Often, the gifts most appreciated by grandparents are family members’ genuine interest in their life stories and time spent with loved ones.

Knowing that, perhaps you want to consider honoring the lives of the grandparents in your family by asking them to share their stories, memories, and wisdom in their own words. Preserving these parts of their lives can not only be a fruitful experience for them, but future generations will also benefit from knowing more about their ancestors.

The AncestryProGenealogists office in Salt Lake City has noticed a rising interest in capturing the oral history of family members in their golden years—so much so that the storytelling team recently added the option of having a professional writer travel to clients to conduct oral history interviews. The endeavor has been wildly popular so far, with most families who complete the process remarking that it was the gift of a lifetime for all in the family.

Here are some reasons to consider recording your family members or hiring an AncestryProGenealogists interviewer to help in the process:

  1. You tell your story in your own words.

We all have our own way of speaking and sharing memories. No two people will ever tell a story exactly the same way. Being interviewed allows family members to shape the memories exactly the way they want to, highlighting certain decisions or weaving in a bit of wisdom learned. Many interviewees have relished the opportunity to tell their descendants how things REALLY were!



Chuck and Karen Woodman, both 84 years old, were recently interviewed by AncestryProGenealogists. They plan to present the recording and transcript they received as a gift to each member of their large family. “I couldn’t think of a better thing to leave our posterity with,” Chuck said. “Hearing it in our own voices at the stage of life we’re at and being able to share some things…I think this is fantastic because to be able to listen to the real voices and say the things we have tried to express from our hearts—hopefully it will have some meaning. And I know it will with our kids, because they lived through these things with us. They can hear our thoughts and our ideas about the life we lived.”

  1. It’s often easier to tell a stranger.

You might think a conversation with a loved one would be more comfortable, but there are some reasons why being interviewed by a non-family member is advantageous when recording memories for future generations. In general, we tend to provide much less detail when describing a story to someone who lived that experience with us, because we know they are already familiar with it. We skim over the details that might have to be explained in greater depth to a stranger.

Interviewers will often ask that respondents use identifiers like “Grandma Alice” instead of just “Grandma” so listeners generations from now will know who they mean. An interviewer, like a good radio host, will also jump in to add clarifying details for the benefit of the listener. These tactics provide a much richer final recording and transcript that can be understood easily for many generations to come.

Finally, it is often much easier for a stranger to ask hard questions or inquire about information that may be more sensitive.

  1. Your memories will prompt other family members to share their stories, too.

How often has one person’s telling of a story prompted many other listeners to jump in with other comments? Right—all the time! When a family starts the process of collecting shared memories, others inevitably jump in, which ultimately makes for a collection of stories that fit together and create a fuller picture of the family history.

Sometimes people will sit in on other family members’ interviews and find that their own memories are stimulated. (“Oh, I haven’t thought about that in YEARS!”) That makes it easier to expand upon the stories with other perspectives or information.

  1. You won’t miss a chance to capture voices, stories, and memories.

Those of us who spend countless hours researching family members who died long ago know that genealogical information is becoming more readily available as records are discovered and digitized. We don’t face a deadline for collecting those details, because record collections are constantly being updated with new offerings. However, the reality is that we do face a time constraint when it comes to capturing the voices of those we love: we are not able to keep them around forever. The chance to hear relatives tell their own stories with their own emphasis, inflection, laughter, or tears is lost forever when those relatives pass on. More and more families are recording those stories while they can.

Chuck is now encouraging others to do an interview before they miss their chance. “Regardless of your connection to your family, there will always be some that say, ‘Gee, I wish I could have had that opportunity to listen to them, to see what their feelings were or what their experience in life was,’” he said. “And some people may just kiss it off—‘Oh, who cares?’ But I think…there comes a point in your life when you say, ‘Boy, I wish I had.’ What I’m able to leave today to my posterity…I wish I’d had some of that from my progenitors.”

Interviewees also have expressed gratitude for the chance to bring their ancestors’ stories to light. Chuck Woodman felt a keen connection to his grandparents during his interview, partly because he was looking at his own family tree on paper throughout the conversation. “As soon as you started talking and when you laid out that [genealogy chart] for me, I felt like I had company,” he told his interviewer. “And I wasn’t alone, because I had those people that now I’m responsible to say something, to tell their story. I felt at ease.”

  1. It provides a long-lasting opportunity to reflect on one’s life.

                  Long after the microphone was turned off, Chuck found another benefit from having been interviewed. He says he reflected on his own life for many days following the recording session, thinking about the path his family has taken together. He thought about his choices and patterns and reactions for many days after the interview. “You’ve caused me to think about some things…to really think it through, some of the things I’ve done in the past,” he told his interviewer. “And I think it’s great. You have a very unique way of getting us to spill the beans.”

                  As more clients start to collect the spoken history of their families, they are realizing that a collection of memories shared by their family members themselves is a gift of priceless value. “You can give your kids gifts of all kinds, but this is a real treasure to give them,” Chuck said.

Good luck recording your interviews! And if you want professional assistance, call AncestryProGenealogists at (800) 596-3230.

Erika Manternach

Erika Manternach writes family history narratives for AncestryProGenealogists and appreciates all opportunities to share compelling stories. Before joining the Ancestry team, she worked for ten years as a TV anchor/reporter in Wisconsin, South Dakota, Indiana, and Utah. She then taught high school journalism and writing for 6 years. Erika and her husband live in Draper, Utah.


  1. Milton Ohlsen

    I never learned to type. I would love to work with someone on my story and my wife’s. P lease call me! 314 277-5922

  2. sara danison

    I found writing my memories very difficult because of so many negatives. Then I thought of interviewing myself, by inserting little interviews within the frame of the lifestory of the person in my tree. I hope to do this with each of the family members I encountered during my 82 years. This plan also had the benefit of enriching my life in unexpected ways.

    • Alan

      This is a great observation Sara about a major potential difficulty with oral history interviews. Your solution is very clever.

  3. Kirstin

    Great article! Could you please recommend the best recording equipment to use for someone who wants to record ancestor’s oral histories on their own?

    • Erika Manternach

      There are many options out there, but we have had good luck using a Zoom H5 recorder and two lavalier microphones, usually one for the interviewer and one for the interviewee.

  4. There’s also a variety of links compiled by the Oral History Association: . The OHA also has a number of brief and affordable pamphlets about various topics in oral history, including one I wrote for the family historian (disclaimer: all proceeds from sales go directly to OHA, not me); you can learn more about these publications here: .

  5. Sharon Peters

    It funny how my son was taken as a baby and when I pull his birth records up it ask me if I’m sure that he belongs on my family tree and everyone in the other tree is private

  6. A wonderful article! I always encourage my students to interview ALL of their relatives as often the younger ones know different stories than the older ones, simply because of the amount of time their parents had to talk to them.

    Also I recommend asking open questions such as ‘how did you celebrate Christmas?” or “what did your father do in the war?”. These allow the interviewee to give as much detail as they can remember, Closed questions such as “what job did you dad have” could result in one word answers.

    Not everyone likes to be interviewed. My 90 year old mother in law preferred to record her memories in her own time. She used a simple tape recorder and added to it whenever she remembered something she thought was of interest. It also made her less anxious about how much time was passing. My father however preferred to think about the questions and then write down the answers. After listening /reading the results I could then ask questions or expand or clarify points.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Anne: Great tips! Thanks very much for sharing your insight with us. Best of luck with your further research.

  7. William Rivera

    Please fill out what.? Conflict because we have a hard time getting along with each other for along time being together. Hey??? 53 yrs of aging and then tress and then being depressed over all.

  8. William Rivera

    Are you a 24 hourly hot line and 7 days a week, people who can help me out. Because u know this leads back all of us Love joy, peace and happiness. So happy Thanksgiving and a very Merry Christmas to you. From Bill. w c. Rivera

  9. Karen gordon

    Im looking for sny information on the rodman and the hiscox family. Seems we are related.. Any articles???

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