Miryelle Resek | Sep 8, 2017

5 Tips for Interviewing a Relative

So you’re just getting started with genealogy. Maybe you found out you were related to someone famous, maybe you’ve taken a DNA test and want to find out more, or maybe you’re simply curious to learn more about your ancestors. Regardless of why you started, we’re glad you’re here.

Genealogy is similar to detective work: you have to gather facts and collect evidence. In her 2017 RootsTech presentation, Kelli Bergheimer introduced a few things she wished she would’ve known as a beginning genealogist. Among other things, she said, “It’s important while you’re researching and gathering that you don’t forget to gather in real time.”

One of the best ways to gather facts and information “in real time” is to conduct interviews. To help get you started, here are some genealogy interviewing tips for when you meet with relatives.

Set Up the Interview

The first thing you’ll need to do is contact a member of the family to set up the interview and decide what type of interview would work best. Will it be over the phone? Email? Would face-to-face work best? Let the interviewee know why you’re doing it, what type of information you’d like, and what to expect.


Why you’re doin​g it

  • To record information about your interviewee?
  • To record information about a relative your interviewee knew?
  • Both?

What type of information you’d like

  • Documents of marriage records
  • Stories and memories relating to relatives
  • Photographs

What to expect​ beforehand

  • What type of things will you be asking about?
  • Will you be recording them as they speak?
  • Will you be bringing family pictures to see if they know anyone?

Remember that while this is an interview, you’ll also be spending time with a family member, so embrace it as an opportunity to visit with one another.

Make Time

You may have to introduce yourself and establish a friendship before they allow you to visit at all.

When they make time for you, ensure that you’re mentally prepared for a discussion. While some of the relatives you’ll interview will be straightforward with their answers, others will elaborate on the people and places they’re telling you about.

While writing down the person’s information is important, what type of person they were will resonate far more with your other family members than just what their name was. Understand that these are people your interviewee is bringing back to life. Let your interviewee take the time they need to resurrect that memory.

Which brings us to tip number 3 …

Bring a Recording Device

It’s hard to remember everything someone has said word for word, but modern technology has made recording every word easier. Everything from a phone to a camcorder can be used to record the detailed stories that your interviewee shares.

If your interviewee feels comfortable, use several devices. That way, you have back-ups of the interview. Make sure that you have enough memory space, batteries, charging cords—anything you may need to prepare for the worst for whatever method you choose to record the interview. This will help things go smoothly as you visit.

Don’t Interrogate

While genealogy is similar to detective work, you don’t have to interrogate your interviewee. Instead, have a few different questions in mind to get the conversation going, and then see where it goes. As your relative shares memories of either themselves or their family, see if you can build on their stories for further information instead of checking the questions off like a list.


Interviewee: “... my grandfather and I loved to go fishing.”
You: “The whole family loves it now! What was your grandfather’s name?”

Try to avoid yes-no questions; the more open-ended it is, the less likely they’ll completely shut down a question., and the more relaxed you make the atmosphere, the more details you’ll be able to treasure.

Remember, that there may be stories that are very personal. It may take several interviews before you earn the trust of a relative so that they share these with you.

Be Kind

Your interviewee has set aside a portion of their day to talk with you. Be kind to them.

Keep an open mind for a perspective that you may not know about or feelings of negativity that you didn’t know where there.

Build an ambiance of trust so that they can share what needs to be shared—this may not happen right away.

As you wrap up, ask them if there is anything else they’d like to share, anything you can do for them, and be sure to thank them in person and later on.

While emailing them a thank you message may be easier and more natural, if you’re talking with someone from an older generation, a letter will be much more meaningful—and it’ll help you be on good terms in case they remember anything else.

Include them into the family. After you’ve transcribed everything, send them a copy of what you’ve learned about your ancestors so that they too can benefit from the experience.

What ideas do you have for interviewing family members? Tweet @RootsTechConf with your tips!

Miryelle Resek

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