Genealogy Basics Chapter 1: How to Interview Relatives

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If you’re setting out to learn more about your family’s roots, there’s no doubt that the journey will be incredibly rewarding. Knowing more about who your ancestors were helps you understand more about who you are now — and gives you the tools to create a better future for yourself and your family.

When you sit down to get started, the road ahead might appear daunting. There’s so much to learn and so much work to be done. How will you find the information you need? How will you document it enough to ensure that it’s accurate and will be preserved for future generations? As a genealogist, you will learn a wide range of skills. You’ll become a historian, a psychologist, a cartographer, a researcher, a linguist, and a paleographer – all rolled into one.

Putting together a family history requires multiple puzzle pieces

MyHeritage’s mission has always been to make genealogy an easy, accessible, fun, and rewarding activity. We’re creating a new Genealogy Basics Series here on our blog to help walk you through the steps to building your family tree and finding out what this amazing journey has in store.

In this first post, we’ll explore how to interview relatives to gather information for your family tree.

How to Interview Relatives

If you’re planning to research your family’s past, interviewing your older relatives is the perfect place to start.

Preparing photos in advance may help spark conversation and stories

The elders of your family carry, in their memories, a wealth of valuable information  — and the time to record that information is now.

It’s best to start with your oldest living relative to capture the unique information only they can provide. There may, however, be another, younger relative who has already done some genealogical research and collected family information. These people are treasure troves! As you progress in your research, you may find more of them. You’ll be able to corroborate information you acquire, compare notes, share records and family stories, and copy each other’s family trees.

Don’t stop at one family member, either. Great-aunts and -uncles, cousins, and more distant relatives may also be a wealth of information. Make a list of family members you’d like to interview and prioritize them, with eldest relatives first.

If you live far away, you may not be able to conduct interviews in person — and even if you plan to visit soon, begin with a telephone interview.

This post will help you learn how to interview an elderly family member for genealogical research.

Preparing for the Interview

Make sure to set aside adequate time for the interview. It may take multiple sessions of several hours each. How many and how long the sessions will be depend on varying factors — the health and stamina of your interviewee, for example, and how much information they have to share. The more time you have, the better.

Still, to make the most of the time with your relative, it’s a good idea to prepare ahead of time. Have questions and equipment ready and, if possible, ask if they can search or ask around for family records and photographs, and have them available when you visit.

Equipment you might want to bring:

    • A notebook and pen.
    • A voice recorder or video camera. Recording the interview frees you from taking notes and ensures you won’t miss a single detail. Additionally, a video of Grandma telling stories about her family might be a valuable asset, to you and to your descendants. The free MyHeritage mobile app has an audio recording feature allowing you to add the recordings directly to your MyHeritage family tree. The recordings made on the app are stored in the profile of the person you’re interviewing, and they can be accessed at any time on the family site or on the mobile app.
    • A digital camera and scanner. These can help easily document memorabilia and make copies of family photographs and documents. You can even use your smartphone as a scanner, and MyHeritage’s mobile app makes it easy. Our digital scanner feature creates high-quality images of photographs and documents, allowing you to tag relatives, add details and descriptions, and catalogue each file in the appropriate section of your family tree.
The MyHeritage mobile app is a great way to audio record relatives as well as scan photos and documents directly to your family tree
The MyHeritage mobile app is a great way to record relatives and scan photos and documents directly to your family tree
  • A bottle of water or tea for each of you. There will be much talking and throats can get dry!

General Questions to Ask

Here are some examples of questions you may want to ask your relative to help add information to your family tree. Always remember to ask open-ended questions, not those answered by “yes” or “no.”

  • Where were you born? What was the first home you remember?
  • Where were your parents born?
  • Did you or your family move or immigrate during your lifetime? From where to where, and when?
  • How many siblings did your parents have? What were their names? Do you know where they were born, or where their parents were from?
  • What are some family stories you remember?
  • What was your first language? What language did your parents speak?
  • Do you remember anyone in our family fighting in a war? If so, which war?
  • What do your first name and surname/s mean? Do you know why you were named that?
  • Did you change your name over the course of your life? If so, why, and what was your previous name?
  • What were your parents’ names and surnames? Do you remember their parents’ names and surnames?
  • How did you meet your spouse?
  • What do you remember about your spouse’s family?

You can find a much longer list of detailed questions to ask in this post, but remember that bombarding your relative with too many questions may be overwhelming. Decide what information is most important and craft your interview to focus on that information. Once the most pressing questions are answered, explore additional memories and stories. Also remember that some people have a more visual memory, rather than auditory, so it may be easier for them to remember details if you draw a family tree or look at family photographs together.

Go through photos in preparation for the interview
Looking through photos during the interview can help relatives remember details

Reviewing Family Memorabilia

Family photographs, heirlooms, and other memorabilia are some of our most prized possessions. Most elderly relatives will be delighted to look through them with you — and doing so may bring up additional memories.

Some items you may want to ask your relative to show you, or bring to the interview yourself to jog their memories:

  • Family photographs
  • Old letters and invitations to weddings or other life-cycle events
  • Yearbooks
  • Newspaper clippings
  • Official records such as birth, death, and marriage certificates
  • Educational records such as report cards and diplomas
  • Military records
  • Religious documents such as baptism or marriage records
  • Family heirlooms, such as jewelry, religious items, books, and artwork
  • Other objects that have personal meaning in the context of family
Family photos, documents and memorabilia to bring to an interview

As you go through these items together, ask whom they belonged to, where and when they were acquired, what they were used for, and if your relative can remember any stories about them. Make sure to take organized notes (or audio record answers after describing the particular item) — especially about the photographs, so you remember who is who.

Be Sensitive

Remember that while many elderly people enjoy the opportunity to reminisce and share family stories, sometimes there may be sensitive or painful memories that may be hard for your relative to talk about. There may be traumatic memories associated with certain events or family members, or the feelings about recently losing a loved one may still be raw. Do your best to be supportive, and don’t push your relative too hard if it seems they are having a difficult time. Offer to take a break or make a cup of tea, and keep going when they are ready.

Take a break and enjoy a cup of tea together
Be supportive and take frequent breaks together

Before You Go

When you’re wrapping up, don’t forget to ask your relative if there’s anything they would like to add, or that they wish you had asked about. Invite them to call or write to you if they remember any stories or information they would like to share later.

Putting It All Together

Once you have completed your interview, you’ll need to organize the information you’ve acquired in a way that will make it easy for you and others to access. Sites like MyHeritage make it easy to build a family tree, store records, and share all that information with your relatives. You might want to compile an album or scrapbook with what you’ve found — and the relative you interviewed would be delighted to receive a copy if you prepare a digital photo book. In later posts, we’ll go into more detail about ways to store and organize your records.

Get to It!

Now that you know how to interview your relatives, it’s time to put the plan into action! Set a date to interview your eldest relative and be sure to keep all our tips and suggestions in mind. We want to hear what the experience was like and what stories and secrets you learned!  Let us know how it goes in the comments below!

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  • ROBERT LOUIS KOMPF


    June 10, 2019

    Before the interview, gather what you have about the person and near (or far) relatives. Share this as and when appropriate. Each bit available or gained may trigger more.

  • william c rigtrup


    June 20, 2019

    Great articale, savedit on my phone will share with people that may need just that little bit of direction to actually do something.

  • Gerald Bailey


    June 26, 2019

    How or where can I find more info on this Genealogy Basic?

    • Esther


      July 1, 2019

      Hi Gerald,

      We hope to have the next chapter out soon. Stay tuned!

      Esther / MyHeritage Team

  • Jen


    June 27, 2019

    Excellent, and also as Robert Louis Kempf says in his comment… each bit of info one can share oneself may trigger memories… also, I have found that with older people the conversation will trigger more memories so see if you can go back, or phone if other memories come to mind ! Many thanks

  • Tony O’seland


    June 27, 2019

    Be careful in your interviews. You may be exposed to information you really didn’t want to know. I found out that my “father” was someone who adopted me and my biological father was, well, I’m a product of date rape and no one wanted me to know about it till I found out by accident. My mother’s reaction was that she’d hoped she would be dead before I found out.

    Be careful out there!

  • Irene Kay Inman


    June 27, 2019

    I do not have any of the previous generation alive to answer any of my questions, so I have to rely solely on actual historical records, given the names and dates that I have access to – I do however have cousins alive that can answer questions about their Mother that perhaps I do not have answers to – I also have a half-sister, but I cannot seem to locate her – I still have a Tree in My Heritage .com and it is accurate as to the information that I already have!

  • Susan Donohoe


    June 29, 2019

    Great information. I plan to get a list of questions together and get started. Thank you for the tips and I look forward to the next blog.

  • Gillis


    June 29, 2019

    This information is fine, except when your nearest older relatives have died, before you set out to glean where your family came from and who were your older relatives.

  • Ben Stern


    June 29, 2019

    Your article states “MyHeritage mobile app has an audio recording feature allowing you to add the recordings directly to your MyHeritage family tree. The recordings made on the app are stored in the profile of the person you’re interviewing, and they can be accessed at any time on the family site or on the mobile app.”
    How come I can’t find it on my mobile app? Nor can I find a way to apply it in a person’s profile.

    • Esther


      June 30, 2019

      Hi Ben,

      To access the feature, enter someone’s profile from the family tree. Click on the “+” option on the bottom right, and there you will see the option to add an audio recording.

      Best,
      Esther / MyHeritage Team

  • John Henley


    June 30, 2019

    How much would it cost for my family tree to be made .

  • Melissa Warfield


    July 2, 2019

    I have no family that I can get any Genealogy from. I have to rely on other people to find the information for me. Would there be a group I can join that’s close to Farmington, MN? I did have a start on my Genealogy, but I lost my information. Can you help me out please? Thank you.

  • Melissa Warfield


    July 2, 2019

    I did forget to include this:

    My Mom, Leah Louise Madison (Maki) was married once before. From what Mom told me, she had gotten married to a bus driver in Taos, NM. They had a baby boy. I do not know the husband’s name or the boy’s name. I was told by Mom that the boy had died and she divorced her husband. Can anyone find out any information for me about the bus driver and the boy. I would like to know if the boy (man) is still living and where he is living right now. I would like to meet this man who would be my half brother, I believe. Thank you for your help.

  • Татьяна


    July 6, 2019

    Замечательную работу проделывает Ваша команда !

    Я благодарю. Вас каждого. Обязательно воспользуюсь советами при работе над книгой о нашей большой семье для нашего продолжения – детей и внуков.
    Спасибо.
    Татьяна.

  • Michelle Jackson


    August 10, 2019

    All my family has passed away.