People say that talking to your plants can make them grow, and the same
is true for family trees. While it's not always necessary to record oral
histories to get the basic vital statistics about your ancestors, you
may find that interviewing your family members provides some of the most
interesting information about your family. Learning about hobbies, family
traditions, and personalities can really bring the names in your family
tree to life!
Making the most of your interview means keeping an ear open for good
stories, and also asking follow-up questions on the details like dates
and places. Below, you'll find some tips on how best to set up and record
the interview, and some sample questions to get you started on the deeper
roots of your family tree.
Tips for Recording Oral Histories
When you record an oral history, remember that you're an interested
relative, not a hard-nosed reporter. Recording an oral history should
be an enjoyable experience for everyone involved, and you're more likely
to get good results if that's the case. Below are a few tips:
Schedule the oral history session in advance. Don't just show up
on a person's doorstep unexpectedly.
Bring a tape recorder, or pen and paper, or both. If you want to
use a tape recorder, make sure you get prior permission from the
person you're interviewing. You may want to take a few notes even
if you use a tape recorder, perhaps to get the correct spellings
of places and people's names or as a backup in case the record malfunctions.
If you use a tape recorder, be sure to test the recorder as well
as the tape to make sure that each is working.
Make sure you record the date and location of the interview, as
well as the name of the interviewer and the interviewee.
Ask questions to start things off, but don't be afraid to let the
person you're interviewing talk "off the subject." You
may get some of the best stories this way. If they really start rambling,
gently steer them back to your questions.
Don't push for answers. If you're asking questions that seem to
make the person uncomfortable, ask if they want to continue or if
they would rather talk about something else.
If you ask "when" something happened, the answer will
often be "I don't know, " because the individual doesn't
recall the exact date or year. Instead of asking "when," ask
the question in relation to another event. For example, did an event
take place before or after the individual got married, or before
or after the individual's parents died? You can also begin the question
with "About how old were you when..." Using these techniques,
you're more likely to get answers.
If you have any old pictures or other items that you have questions
about, bring them along. You may get answers to your questions, and
you will probably hear some good stories, too.
Keep the session relatively short, no more than one or two hours.
Recording an oral history should be fun, not hard work. You can schedule
another session at a later date if you want to continue recording
the oral history.
Suggested Topics and Questions for Oral Histories
Below are some sample topics and questions that you can use when you
record oral histories. Don't limit yourself to our suggestions, however.
Every family is unique, and you can probably think of some special things
to talk about. Make sure you get down the name and birth date of the
person you're interviewing, as well as where they fit in your family
tree. Then, choose any of the topics below and begin asking questions.
- What do you recall about your childhood?
- Where did you live and go to school?
- What do you remember best about your parents?
- What did you and your siblings do in your spare time?
- Were you an obedient child or a mischievous child?
- What styles of clothing did children wear then?
- Did your family have any special traditions, such as things that
they did on holidays or birthdays?
- What about family heirlooms? Is there anything that's been handed
down from generation to generation?
- When did you leave home?
- Why did you leave and where did you go?
- How did your life change? Did you feel grown up? Were you a little
- Which significant historical events have taken place during your
- Were there wars, natural disasters, or political changes?
- How did these events affect you?
- What was the name of the place where you grew up?
- Was it a big city or a small town?
- Were there any special activities or festivals at different times
during the year?
- How old were you when you immigrated to the United States?
- Were did you come from and where and when did you arrive?
- How did you travel? By boat, plane, or train? How long did the trip
- What feelings did you have about coming to the United States? What
was one of the biggest differences between the United States and your
- What did your parents do for a living when you were growing up? Did
you ever help them out?
- Was your family financially comfortable?
- What was your first job? How old were you at the time? How did you
get your job?
- What different jobs have you had during your life?
- What physical characteristics do people in your family share?
- Do they all have the same hair color or eye color?
- Whom in the family do you resemble?
- Did you know your grandparents or great-grandparents?
- What were their names?
- Where did they live?
- What stories can you tell about them and their lives?
- What part did religion play in your family?
- Were you very religious?
- Did you go to religious services on a regular basis?
Other Possible Topics
Education, Politics, Military Service, Recreation, Entertainers of the Era,
Family Personalities, Family Pets, Traveling, Dating, Clothing, Family Recipes,
Favorite Songs or Poems, Family Medical History, Marriage and Raising a Family,
and anything else that may be of interest to you and your family.