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How to Interview Relatives about Family History?

Summer is a great time for traveling and visiting relatives. Instead of sitting at the computer or in the reading room of an archive, take this opportunity to visit your relatives and interview them about family history. In this blog post, I will share some tips on how to conduct interviews about family history and what questions to ask to obtain valuable information.

Elf granddaughter interviews her grandfather
Created by DALL-E

Use Modern Technology

Technology is a great helper when conducting interviews. You can record phone conversations, and use your phone as a voice recorder or video camera. This will allow you to review the conversations later and extract useful information. You can also use technology for transcription, such as for Latvian language or Word.

The University of Latvia's Institute of Philosophy and Sociology and the Latvian Oral History Researchers' Association have published “Guidelines for Interviewers and Memory Writers” (in Latvian) which are worth reading for family researchers and those writing their own memories. The guidelines are also available online here.

Preparation for the Interview

Preparing Questions: Create a list of questions, starting with general ones and continuing with more specific ones. Questions could be about the family's origin, important life events, traditions, and daily life.

Explaining the Purpose of the Interview: Briefly explain the purpose of the interview and how the obtained information will be used. Make sure the interviewee feels safe and free to share their stories.

Ask Open-ended Questions: Start with questions that require detailed answers, such as "Tell me about your childhood" or "What were your family's traditions?"

During the Interview

Be a Patient Listener: Don't rush to interrupt the storyteller, even if the story goes off-topic. Sometimes the most interesting facts emerge unexpectedly.

Record the Entire Conversation: It is advisable to record the entire conversation rather than turning the recorder on and off. You never know when an interesting story or fact might appear in the conversation.

Ask Questions One at a Time: If you ask many questions at once, the person will only answer the first or last question. Give them time to think and don't rush to fill the silence with the next question.

Use Visual Materials: Photos, letters, or other family relics can inspire memories and help shape the conversation.

Some Ideas for Interview Questions

Information about the Interviewee

Of course, if you are interviewing a more distant relative, it might be more important to gather information about common ancestors. However, if you are interviewing one of your grandparents, you will also want to know details about their childhood and life.

  • What are your earliest childhood memories?

  • Where did you grow up? What was your house like, your room?

  • Tell me about your parents and grandparents. What were they like in character? What did they look like? What did they do for a living? Tell some characteristic anecdotes about them! Were there any characteristic expressions they used to say?

  • Did you have brothers and sisters? What was the relationship like? How did you spend time together? What games did you play?

Family Origin and Roots

  • What is known about the family's origin and earliest ancestors? Where did they come from?

  • Is it known when and how our ancestors arrived at their current place of residence?

  • What family legends have been preserved about the ancestors?

Extended Family and Relatives

It might help to have a printed or drawn family tree during the conversation. Then you can look at specific relatives and ask the person to tell about one or the other.

  • Are their life data known? Is their occupation and place of residence known?

  • Can the people be characterized somehow? What were they like in character, appearance, clothing?

  • What events and expressions characterize them?

Family Traditions and Celebrations

  • What special traditions did the family have? How and what holidays were celebrated in childhood? How did the holidays change before and after the war?

  • What were the main values and beliefs taught by the father and mother or grandparents?

Family Homes

  • What were the family homes like, and what was daily life like in them?

  • Are any old family items preserved from the family homes, and what is known about them?

  • Are there any stories about the old family homes or properties?

Significant Events and Experiences

  • What are the memories of significant historical events – war or the restoration of independence? How did the person feel at the time? What did they do, what did they think?

  • What events have had the greatest impact on the family's life?

  • Are there any special stories about relatives' experiences in these events?

Family Professions and Occupations

  • What were the ancestors' professions and occupations?

  • Are there any family members who became known for their work or achievements?

  • What skills and knowledge have been passed down from generation to generation?

Advice for Future Generations

  • What would you like future generations to know about our family?

  • What lessons or values has our family passed down that would be important for future generations?

Inta Gāle-Kārpentere in the above mentioned booklet states that the best interviewers are those who can ask the same question in different ways to get a more comprehensive view.

Good luck with your conversations!



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