Top 20 Family History Interview Questions

By | July 14, 2016

Interviewing living family members can certainly benefit your ancestry research. But knowing the right family history interview questions to ask can really help you build your family tree. Family, co-workers and friends can give you a wealth of data and also save you time tracking down useful information found in certificates, censuses, etc.

Family History Interview Questions

The information that you can garner from these people may not have been recorded, so it is certainly worthwhile interviewing them. They may also be able to direct you to people who knew your ancestors or sources of information that will help you on your way.

Ask what resources your relatives can give to you!

They may in fact have certificates in their possession to which you can ask for a copy. If they have letters, wills and photographs then these can be copied as well. Family heirlooms can be photographed and added to your genealogy research. Stories attached to heirlooms can add depth to your family history and make it even more interesting.

Interviewing is a great way to get more information to add to your family history research. Collecting names and dates can help you but getting stories and memories will add depth to your research. And as stated above will make it more interesting when it comes time to writing up your family history.


Tips To Follow For Your Interview

Making Contact

This can be done in a number of different forms, such as in person, by telephone, letter or email. When you do make contact please make sure you tell them who you are, how you are related to them and your ancestors, and what you hope to achieve with the interview.

You will want to say that you are conducting genealogy research. You can encourage them that any personal information disclosed will remain private. They may not wish the information that they give you to be made public. State who will see the information that you will collect during the interview.

Telephone Interview

When conducting a telephone interview call in advance so you can set a convenient time for both of you. Several phone calls may be needed to ask all of your questions. If interviewing through emails then leave space for the answers that you get.

A letter interview maybe the only option for you. If this is the case then enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope. You can then send them a thank you letter in response to their answers.

The first time you make contact will just be to introduce yourself and stating your reasons for the interview. You will then give them time to collect anything that may be of use to you. This will also allow their time to remember stories and anecdotes about your ancestors.


Preparing For The Interview

Before you conduct the interview you will want to prepare what questions you will ask. That way you will get the most out of the interview and not forget any important questions. As new information may arise during your research you may wish to conduct a second interview or maybe even more.

Please though make sure that they are comfortable with this.

With any type of interview that you conduct make sure that it is free from interruptions. To get the most out of the interview you can ask open-ended questions rather than closed-ended ones. The former will add more depth to the information you get as they explain how and why to your questions.

So how will you record their responses?

You may just want to write down their answers using pencil and paper. However, you may also wish to use either a tape recorder or video camera. Before you do interview your relatives please make sure that they are comfortable with this as they may feel intimidated in front of a video camera. If you are using a video camera then it is a good idea to state the date and location for future reference.

Video Interview

Start the camera before the actual interview begins and try to make your relative comfortable before the questioning. This way you will have recorded everything, and you won’t need to remember their initial answers from memory.

You could place the camera out of sight so that they are not nervous or embarrassed by the interview. The camera does not have to be focused on the interviewee, but maybe on both of you. Make sure though that the camera is on a level surface.

Do test your equipment before the interview. You do not want to get home only to find that your responses were not recorded at all or you ran out of batter power.

What other things can be brought to the interview?

Not only will you ask the interviewee to gather anything that may help you with your research but you will want to bring photographs, charts, letters with you. You can ask them whether the information in them is correct, or identify who is in the photos. It may also trigger a memory that they may have forgotten.

This has certainly been the case with me. It can be surprising what stories or anecdotes spring to mind during the course of an interview.


Conducting The Interview

When you do meet your relative you may want to remind them again just how you two are related. Do make your relative comfortable before you conduct the interview. The setting could be at their home, at yours, or even at a mutual place such as a restaurant.

If your relative has photographs, letter or documents then please ask permission to make copies. You may have to take them with you after your visit. If you do so then reassure them that you will return them and state by when. You could though take pictures using your phone or a camera.

How to begin the interview process?

Start with the photos and ask your relative about them. You can ask who is in the photo, where it was taken and what the occasion was. Beforehand label the photos that you will bring with you. Write down what you know on the back and try to find out what information that you are missing from them.

Photographs

Photos can be great at triggering a memory and are far less intimidating than if you only had questions during the meeting. Before you discuss each photograph you can show it to the camera. This will help you later when you enter the information that you have collected.

Once you have finished with the photographs, letters, documents, etc. then begin your questioning. If your interviewee does not want to answer a question or does not know the answer then just move on to the next question. Your relative may recollect a memory and answer your question later on in the interview.

Follow a plan of action when conducting the interview!

Try to keep to the order of questions that you will ask. You do not want to jump around and forget questions. Please give time for responses and do not hurry the interviewee. You may feel as the interview progresses that a second visit is called for.

Genealogy questions

If this is the case then make sure your relative is aware of this and ask whether you can return with more questions. Interviewing an elderly relative may be too much for them so spreading this out over a few interviews is a good option.

One thing that you will want to do after the interview is to return to your ancestor once you have put all the information together. Assure them that you will return to show them what you have done with information that they have provided.

Your relative may be pleased with another visit and be interested to see what you have done with all that they have given. You can ask them to check over it all to make sure that everything is correct. This though may take a few visits itself as the information you may present could be quite vast for one visit.


What To Do With The Information?

A transcript of the interview can be typed up to which you can show your relative to make sure there are no errors. Once you have done this then you can enter what you have learnt into your genealogy software program. With this new information you will be able to update and amend names, dates and places, as well as add new branches that can be researched further.

You can also scan in the photographs, letters, etc, that you have collected. Any pictures that you have taken with your camera or smartphone can be uploaded to your computer.

Scan Photographs

You may wish to make hard copies of these to put in your files and folders. This is always a good idea as you will have a backup of the information.

Your interviewee can suggest to you people and relatives that can help you further. So you can take what you have learned from this process when you conduct another interview. You may find ways of improving your techniques, or think of new questions you may want to ask.


Top 20 Questions To Ask

Some of these questions are divided into several parts. You may want to ask all the questions or only some of them. There are certainly a lot more questions that you can ask. These though are a good starting point when conducting your first interview with a relative. You may want to return and gather more information later on.

General information about the family

1.  What is your full name? Were you named after anyone and what nicknames did you have growing up?
2.  When and where were you born? Where did you live when growing up?
3.  What were your parents and grandparents names? When and where were they born and were they named after anyone? You may want to ask about great grandparents as well.
4.  Where did they live and what were their occupations? When did they die and where are they buried?
5.  Do you have any brothers and sisters? What are their names, when and where were they born? Did they marry and to who?
6.  Did your parents, grandparents have siblings? What were their names, and when and where were they born? Did they marry and to who?

Going into more detail

7.  How did you meet your partner? How did your parents, and your grand parents meet?
8.  Tell me about your wedding? Your parents, grandparents wedding?
9.  What are your memories of your parents and grandparents?
10.  What can you tell me about your father’s relatives? What about your mother’s family?
11.  What memories do you have of aunts, uncles, and cousins?
12.  What stories did your parents and grandparents recite to you about your ancestors?

Your ancestors life

13.  What is your earliest memory? Do you have any childhood memories?
14.  Describe your house and the area where you lived?
15.  Which school(s) did you attend and what was it like? Who were your schoolfriends?
16.  What was your first job? What other jobs did you do during your working life? What were they like?
17.  Where did you go on holidays as a child and as an adult?
18.  What were your pastimes and hobbies?
19.  What events impacted you the most while growing up?
20.  What is your greatest achievement?


Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed reading this article outlining the top 20 family history interview questions to ask relatives. If you think that this post will be helpful to others then please share it with friends and family using the social media buttons below.

If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Author: Owain

Hello, Owain here. After researching my family history for a number of years I wanted to give back to the genealogy world. So here you will find guides, tips and product reviews that will help you on your genealogy journey.

28 thoughts on “Top 20 Family History Interview Questions

  1. Mike

    Awesome reading. I sometimes get stuck in family gatherings when I don’t know what else to ask, it can get a bit stale sometimes after “How are you?” but these questions are great, I mean, their main purpose is probably someone who’s doing a full research. But these certainly help us all common people too. So thank you!!!

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      You are right about that. I had never thought of that before. They are good starting points.

      Reply
  2. Summerly

    This is really neat. Reminds me of school when you had to interview a person in your family. Even though you can check online for your family history, I think it is best to actually talk to people and learn from them. They have stories and memories that you can’t find online. The 20 questions are great. I like the ones that get the person talking about their site school years and their friends. I bet those will bring out many fun stories to hear about.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      It’s much better asking open-ended questions. Whoever you are interviewing will feel more at ease, and who knows what stories will be recited.

      Reply
  3. John Savage

    So I’ve always wanted to know who my ancestors are/were and always thought they originated from North London.
    To be honest, not knowing wasn’t a struggle but always kept my eye my family tree for extra info then I discovered something amazing!

    An aunt has traced the family by actual birth certificates to Owen Dennis Savage born in 1765, Dublin Ireland!!

    My mum found her real Dad who first language was Welsh and then Im told, Savage is the second oldest recorded surname in Scotland!!

    Highlighting how to trace ancestry, I think youre doing a great job.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      It’s always great to see people can trace their families back hundreds of years. I have done so far on a number of branches. It’s quite interesting to see how your family, from different parts of the U.K., came together. I sometimes think that if one piece of the puzzle was missing then we wouldn’t be here today.

      Reply
  4. Britt

    Hi Owain,

    You’ve laid out an excellent process in which to interview family members. I only wish I had this information before some of my ancestors passed.

    I especially appreciate the 20 interview questions you’ve provided. I’m thinking of sending these questions out to family members before the next reunion so we can create some sort of event or game with family history.

    The list of the 20 questions is now bookmarked!

    Britt

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Thank you so much. I have said myself before how I wished I had asked my relatives questions before they passed. But I try not to regret that. Just get down what you can now. It will be a treasure in years to come.

      That’s a great idea to send them out.

      As for a game you can make laminated cards. I guess it could be a cross between the game Guess Who and Trivial Pursuit. You have a number of people (cards) in front of you (with picture in the front and their information on the back). When you pick one the other game player asks to state something about them. They decide what they will ask. So they may ask what was their date of birth or where were they born. If you get it right then you keep the card. It would be best if both players had two different sets of cards. You could play in pairs or more.

      Reply
  5. Mark

    I love genealogy and family history. It’s great to see a website like yours. It’s amazing how many of us miss the opportunity to ask older relatives questions likes these. It’s not until they pass away do we regret never asking. So many wonderful stories and family facts lost to the sand of time. Sometimes a family heirloom helps us to rediscover a lost family story. I think we should ask a lot more questions and keep the memories alive.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Indeed, sometimes we do leave it too late and then stories are lost forever. So it is important to ask right now. You are correct when you say that family heirlooms do help us rediscover a lost family story. They have so much to say, that’s if they could speak of course, lol. You may be interested in How To Preserve Your Family Treasures as I explain how we can cherish and keep family possessions for future generations

      Reply
  6. mariam

    They are the top 20 family history interview questions. I like asking elder people about our genealogy. I always befriended the most elderly people because I wanted to know exactly where we came.
    Thank you for opening my eyes about taking record when asking them like you said video. That is a great idea that I will buy from now on.
    You have stated well how to question them, but all needs to be with a right or friendly mood before going into the questioning. Some relatives have bad memories and don’t want to put to memory somethings from the past. Maybe still carrying hatred, guilty, etc. Consider highly learning the environment at hand. Like you said, make the relatives comfortable before the interview.
    Nice article Owain.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      In this day and age everything seems to be online. But elderly people’s life’s and stories are not. It’s important to remember them and what better way than an interview. As pointed out you do have to be sympathetic, but you can find out so much from this. I am glad that you found the article helpful. All the best with your genealogy

      Reply
  7. Farhan

    Very interesting subject here. I never knew investigating one’s family lineage is a serious hobby or profession. I wish I knew more about my ancestors as well, about how they live etc.

    You give very useful tips that actually make sense. I think not making the interviewee feel nervous or uncomfortable is definitely a priority. They might not want to share more information if they do feel “exposed”.

    Great article!

    Reply
  8. Momma Bear

    This article is right on time! I was just talking to a friend of my father’s the other day who had a brother who was a part of the Normandy invasion. He found another gentleman that served with his brother and talked to him for a long time about his experiences. He said that he found out so much about his brother, that he hadn’t shared with his family and would have been lost if he hadn’t talked to the man who served with him. I think everyone should try to get their history recorded so stories like these aren’t lost.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      I have heard that before how a family member won’t share with his family what happened during the war years. It is great that you have that information now from another gentleman. That information is priceless. That’s wonderful

      Reply
  9. Tiffany

    I appreciate the way you have provided a detailed outline and helpful questions, to guide the process of uncovering genealogy. I have considered embarking on this journey, but I was hesitant due to not knowing where to start. I found your post to be easy to follow and quite thorough.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      I thought it would be best to start this post with a guide and tips on how to conduct the interview. Then I went into the all important questions to ask. Although you can also add to the questions if you wish.

      You may find my How Do I Start My Family History In 10 Steps post useful for starting your genealogy research. All the best

      Reply
  10. Travis Smithers

    Compared to other people I have talked to that have been looking at putting their family tree together, I find you have a much more methodical approach.

    You have a better plan of action to get and compile the information and look into getting some personal history about each person that I find others more facts to look over.

    Great idea about the 20 questions you have put together for getting details and your strategy is very well laid out for better success.

    Great article and this will come in handy.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Having spent several years putting together my own family history I speak from experience. I also have a logical mind, which is something you need when you are putting the pieces together. Too many times do I see people’s family trees and their notes and they just don’t make sense. I like order.

      Thank you for comment. It is much appreciated

      Reply
  11. PansyB

    I read your post and found it to be very interesting. I have found valuable tips as how to conduct a geneology research interview. There are some of the tips that i would never think of without your mention. You have done a great work. I am grateful for this.

    By the way, you have caused me to recognize some shortcomings within my family settings. I have an elder cousin and I have come to realise that whenever she departs I and other members of our family would have had a great problem since most of our relatives would not be able to know some of our family members without her. Therefore, you have given me enough resources to do my homework regarding our family history Thanks for the prompting.

    Keep up the good work.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      I am glad that I have made you realise this. I realised this some time ago and I thought to myself that I better to something before it is too late. I am glad that I have been able to build my family tree and tell my ancestors stories that can be passed down the generations

      Reply
  12. TBonki

    I’ve never come across a website on this topic before, I found it very interesting and useful. I love learning about my family history, and the list of 20 questions will definitely come up at future gatherings. How important do you think it is to learn about your ancestors? Do you think it should be encouraged in the education system, for example?

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      An interesting question. They do say that to know where you are going you need to know where you came from. And this is certainly true with your ancestry. It is certainly fascinating to know who your ancestors were, where they lived and what did they do for a living.

      As for encouraging it in schools I did have a class where we got to research our family history. It can certainly teach kids new skills. How to be logical, how to investigate, how to write up your information. Local libraries do have a genealogy group so kids could join these. Maybe a special excursion can be arranged between schools and libraries

      Reply
  13. shrey

    This is one useful post since I have already started working on my family history book and I was just having a few questions in mind and could not find anything useful over the internet.
    I think I need to include all these points in my list so that I would have more questions to ask , do you think there are specific questions which can be answered well by specific members of the family?

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      I myself use general questions that can relate to anyone. Like where did you work, or where did you go to school. Once you have answer to these questions you could ask more probing questions like what was work like, tell me your work routine. Questions like that

      Reply
  14. Michel

    Thank you for yet another excellent article.

    I have made a date with my 70-year-old uncle to go through the old family photo’s at the end of the year together so that he can tell me who is who, as he is the only one who can remember everyone.

    I love this type of history research, and your article has given me some more ideas on what to ask him about and also to copy some of the memorabilia.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      That is a great news that you will meet with your uncle. I am sure that you will learn a lot. Remember you can always make a second or third date if you need to. And if it’s ok with him

      Reply

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