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         Genealogists say that interviewing relatives is the best way to start researching family histories. The popularity of keepsake and memoir books that allow grandparents to write down information about their lives to pass down to subsequent generations hints at the importance of these interviews.

         However, the advantage of a personal interview over a journal entry is that the interviewer can ask more specific questions, taking cues from one answer to pursue another avenue of questions.

Interviews allow you to:

  • Learn important facts
  • Understand the situation better as you are drawn into the pictures interviewees paint
  • Let the person’s unique personality emerge to enhance his or her story. For instance, my grandmother, who we lovingly accuse of spending half her life in the kitchen, describes food at her family’s mealtimes in great detail. My late grandfather was careful to include the specific model and engine of the car, the dimensions and materials of the building, and the way a machine or tool in his story worked. He was a mechanical engineer.
  • Record the conversation with audio and/or video equipment. Be sure to ask their permission first and check the recording device to make sure it is working properly.

Interview structure
Although the word interview suggests interactivity, the interviewer may find out more by listening and only occasionally posing a question. In fact, some very interesting information can come from permitted eavesdropping on chats between family members who are recalling things from shared pasts. Such conversations flow very naturally, with one individual offering a “remember when” and a discussion of the event ensuing.

Interview questions
Below are some sample questions to ask. They assume some familiarity with the interviewee so questions like full name, birth date, parents’ names, and the like are omitted. I usually make up my own questions but there are many Web sites about conducting family interviews that have sample questions. See
links for a few sites.

Divide interview into sections like these:

Family

  1. Where were you born?
  2. Describe the house you lived in as a child (location, structure, room layout and furniture).
  3. Describe your parents (physical appearances, interests, hobbies, personalities, and occupations).
  4. Describe each of your siblings.
  5. Were you close to any other relatives?
  6. Describe mealtimes in your home.
  7. Did your family have any traditions?
  8. How did your family observe holidays?
  9. Where did your family go on vacations?
  10. What rules did your parents have for you and your siblings?
  11. Did your family ever move?
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Friends and Entertainment

  1. What did you do for fun?
  2. Did you have pets?
  3. Did you have a nickname?
  4. Do you remember any particular instance of “getting into trouble”?
  5. Did you have chores? What were they?
  6. Describe a typical summer day.
  7. Who were your friends?
  8. Where did you go on your first date?
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The Times

  1. How much did things cost when you were a child? (Ask about specific products and services).
  2. Did your family have ___________(a telephone, car, running water, etc.)?
  3. What kind of transportation did your family use?
  4. If you had to explain the difference between “the times” then and now, what would you say?
  5. What were some of the significant world, national and community events that happened during your youth?
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School and Ambitions

  1. Who were your role models as a child?
  2. What did you want to be when you grew up?
  3. Describe school (building, classes, school day, etc.).
  4. What was your favorite subject?
  5. Who was your favorite teacher?
  6. What was your first job?
  7. Did you participate in extra curricular activities?
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After Childhood

  1. How did you meet your spouse? What was your first impression of him/her?
  2. How long did you date before getting married? Describe the wedding.
  3. Give a timeline of your career path, including important jobs, college, military experience, etc.
  4. What were your children like as babies? As children? As teenagers?
  5. What have they done to make you most proud over the years?
  6. What is your greatest accomplishment?
  7. Describe each of your grandchildren. When did you first see them?
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  My grandfather sawing boards for a hardwood floor. It's the last picture taken of him and very fitting-- he loved working with tools.Thomas F.


© Heather M. Edwards