Build Your Skills: Interviewing Family

Interviews with family members can reveal information not found anywhere else, but the amount of information you obtain depends on both the subject and your approach. Here are some tips for getting the most from your interview:

  • Prepare questions ahead of time. If you go in with only “Tell me everything you know about our family history,” you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. Ask more pointed questions like, “What kinds of things remind you of your mother?” or “What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in?” “Were there other relatives living nearby when you were young?” “What did your father do for a living?” Questions that generate fond memories and personal stories are more likely to be productive and will make your subject feel at ease. 
  • Ask permission if you plan on audio- or video-taping the interview. If your subject feels uncomfortable with either, be prepared with a pen and paper to take notes. Then transcribe those notes as quickly as possible after the interview. Send a copy of the transcription to the interviewee to make sure you have all the facts correct and ask them to add any additional memories in writing. 
  • Let the interview subject talk. Start with a question and see where it leads. Sometimes one question will prompt memories on another topic that you hadn’t thought to include in your list. It also makes the interview more enjoyable for the interviewee. 
  • Bring things to the interview that will stimulate memories, such as a collection of photographs and records you’ve found in your searches. Ask what your interview subject knows about them. He or she may have memories of the day their father was naturalized, or you may find out at last who those people are in that previously unidentified photograph—and where and when it was taken. 
  • If you run out of time, ask if you can phone them later with questions. Or send them home with some written questions that they can answer and mail back. 
  • Be sensitive. If you come to a subject that seems to be causing discomfort for your relative, change to a new topic, otherwise your interview may come to an early end.

Click here for a list of more interview questions.

4 thoughts on “Build Your Skills: Interviewing Family

  1. My wife and I are in our mid-70s, and a lot of our dinner table converstaion is looking back at our 56+ years together, and what we remember about them. No telling what will prompt a particular memory, like the rain and leaves on her mother’s car when they heard about the first A-bomb strikes on Japan.

    I have one of the miniature digital recorders, and I’m going to start just leaving it on in the “record” mode on the table and capture some of these memories. A cousin of hers and I have been digging into the history of that family; we may be able to fill in a few blanks in our research that way.

    Charlie Brown, Hendersonville, NC

  2. As a 24-year-old thirty years ago, I interviewed my relatives on tape. Recently, I’ve transferred them to my computer. Now that most of those people are gone, they’re priceless to me. I’ve transcribed some of the interviews so that I can go over the transcription to come up with more research ideas.

    I would suggest that people use their computers, especially laptops, to record interviews. Tapes have hiss and rumble, which can be distracting to listeners. Use a good quality microphone (I use a Blue Snowball with the Ringer).

    When bringing items to spark the memory of the interviewee, be sure to clearly identify what the item is so that you’ll be able to match the item with what’s being said when you listen to the interview years later.

    I like to have one-on-one interviews so that the interviewee stays focused on my questions, but there are times when it helps to have another person in the same room. My mother was able to fill in small details during the interview with my dad while she was sitting across the room. Siblings can finish each other’s sentences when it comes to shared memories.

  3. I prepared my questions, for my mother, in a notebook. But took a tape recorder, with extra cassettes. I did this because I knew that my mother could have quite a bit of information, and I didn’t want to have to slow down her response by trying to write her answer. We spent almost 4 hours doing this. I asked her if she was tired, as she was living in a nursing home. She told me that it was the best visit she had, it reminded her of so many family members that had passed and the good times that they had together. She said she couldn’t wait to do it again. We had one more interview visit, before she passed. Not only will I have those memories but I will have her voice telling those family stories.

  4. When I first began researching our Noel family, asking my father about his family members or his childhood, his response was almost always, “I don’t remember any of that stuff.” He seemed almost annoyed at being asked the questions.

    However, when I would call him to tell him about the results of some of my digginig, some of the names would trigger memories for Dad and get him talking about things. I would get details about those that he remembered; like the fact that my great-grandfather Edgar talked with a thick French accent and he always looked like he needed a shave. And that when Dad would go visit him, he would give him a snack of a piece of bread dampned with water and then sprinkled with sugar.

    So if the person you’re interviewing is having trouble remembering things, try “spoon-feeding” them what little information you do have. It may help jog some of those memories in a way that simple interviewing does not.

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