Family History: Tips for informally interviewing your relatives

Maurice O'Regan and Mary Magner research their family history.
Maurice O’Regan and Mary Magner research their family history. (Photo courtesy Maggie Fimia)

This is the fourth in a series of columns about discovering and sharing your family history. For the first three see: Kids are like kites; Telling your family story-It’s so much more than names and dates; Family History, How to Get Started-what’s holding you up?

“Out of shared telling and remembering grow identity, connection, and pride, binding people
to a place and to one another.”  — Tom Rankin, Folklorist

By the time I was nine years old, all my grandparents were gone. I’d give anything for just five minutes with any of them now. Few of us had the awareness when we were younger to ask our older relatives questions about their lives and then to write down or record their answers. What I could have gotten in a few minutes from my Irish grandmother, Maggie McGrath, has taken me decades to find. Some of the most important questions like, “What ever happened to your father, Grandma?” Go unanswered.

Ideally, involve the younger people in your family. So much of this work now is web-based, something young people are experts in. Their older relatives know the family history but may not be proficient on the Internet. Taking time to sit down together (or over Skype or phone) to start building a family tree* is a great way to pool their talents discover and record fascinating stories and build an even stronger relationship.

I recommend you start with your oldest or frailest relatives. Call or write them and say you’d like to know a little more about the family, can they give you some time in the near future? Then set up a time, write down your questions and share them with your relative in advance. Bring some photos or mementos to trigger stories.

Most people are happy to be asked. Some had very difficult lives and may not want to revisit them, but usually, even they have subjects like their jobs, their hobbies, a favorite place, that they might be willing to share a story or perspective about.

You can interview them with just pen and pencil in hand, audio recorder or video recorder. Pick a quiet place. If others want to hear and be involved, ask that they try not to make any unnecessary noise while your recording.

Make sure the relative is comfortable and don’t ask them to talk more than 20-30 minutes, unless they are robust. Others can be involved with the conversation, but coach others that they have to be patient and make sure the person being interviewed has time to think, process and finish their answers. You can edit out the long pauses if necessary. The main thing is to let them answer at their own speed.

I like to start with stating their name and the date and place this is being recorded. A few questions I’ve used:

1. So, when you were growing up did you have a favorite meal your Mom made?

2. Did you have a best friend? What was their name, why were you best friends, did you both ever get into trouble?

3. Did you think your parents and grandparents were old fashioned? When did you realize they were interesting?

4. How did the era you grew up in influence the way you lived your life or the values you have today?

5. If you could tell your children and grand children one important story about the family, who is the main character, where does it take place and what happens? Why did you chose that story and person?

6. How did you meet Grandma/Grandpa?

7. Looking back, are there questions you wish you would have asked your parents or grandparents about their lives? If you asked those questions, what were their answers?

The last one could also be used to coax a hesitate relative to share stories. You can gently tell them that what ever they wish they had known about the family are also things we want to know – and they are the only ones who can tell us.

Their personal information and history is invaluable to the family. Even if they had brothers and sisters – all experience the family differently.

Online and other sources for doing family interviews

Smithsonian has a “Folklife and Oral history Interviewing Guide.”

There are numerous books and articles that can give you more pointers.

Sources for building a family tree online:

Family Tree Maker

Next Column: Family letters, cards, records and memorabilia- better than gold!

– By Maggie Fimia

Maggie Fimia

Maggie Fimia, owner of Welcome Home Family History Services, has over 30 years’ experience doing family research and helping families tell their stories. A former registered nurse, elected official and community organizer, she is the mother of two grown daughters and lives in Edmonds with her husband, Don Moe MD.


3 Replies to “Family History: Tips for informally interviewing your relatives”

  1. Family photos can’t be over emphasized. Some may have noticed the recent proliferation of “teardowns” in our community. Losing infrastructure is like losing family in the sense that places are an important part of the stories of who we are and where we come from. Too many of us receive boxes of photos, and the only people who know the subject matter aren’t with us any more to identify the subjects and where the photos were taken.

    Gerry Tays
    Chair, Edmonds Historic Presentation Commission


  2. Agreed! Get those boxes out, starting with the oldest pictures. Ask your relatives who the people are and then sort them by who’s in them. So, initially, you don’t have to label each picture – but label an acid free photo envelope with their name(s) and put the group of photos of that person(s) in the envelopes. Children especially love to see who they look like.

    It gives our lives context to know our history.


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