Interviewing Family Members
One of the most overlooked genealogical research techniques is the personal interview. Many of these interviews would qualify as the equivalent of an oral history. Simply defined, oral history is a method of collecting historical information from individuals with knowledge about past experiences involving family members, historical events and related topics.
Because of the intensely personal nature of the interview, the information from such a session tends to be more subjective and evaluative than details found in a written document. Oral history enables people to preserve their voices for future generations who will have the advantage of hearing a person tell their story in their own words.
The most common mistake many researchers make is jumping to the conclusion that once their parents and grand-parents are deceased; there is no reason to explore further interview options. In reality, there are many other potential sources of information.
1. Neighbors (even if they were not friendly) 7. Classmates
2. Co-workers 8. Business associates
3. Clergy 9. Former spouses
4. Teachers 10. Friends
5. Members of social clubs 11. Bartenders
6. Members of sororities/fraternities 12. Alumni organizations
The key to successful interviews involves planning. Interview sessions can progress beyond the basic who-begat-whoms, and delve more deeply into the rich fabric of family history, such as relationships, quality of life, motivations, migrations, and the impact of these events on the family. When beginning the planning process, following these key points will put you in the best position for success:
1. Determine what type of information you are seeking.
2. Choose candidates who can best provide information from the list of options shown above.
3. Most professionals recommend choosing older people first if you believe they have pertinent
information. If they pass away before being interviewed, their knowledge and insight passes with
4. Conduct some pre-interview background research and compile a list of questions.
5. Design your questions in an “open ended” manner. An open ended question is specifically
designed to encourage personal commentary versus simple "yes" or "no" answers.
6. Open ended questions should be designed to try and elicit facts, as well as feelings and
descriptions. While you should always try to elicit such details as names and dates, remember
that facts also include finding out how, why, where and with what results.
7. Decide what format you will use to conduct the interview. Will it be recorded in some format or
be a simple one-on-one interview? If your intent is to record the interview, please make sure this
is permitted by the interviewee.
Information gleaned from an interview can lead the researcher to a variety of primary and secondary records and indexes containing genealogical information in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the British Isles depending on where the immigrant ancestor lived before coming to America. Examples include the following: