Get Nosy with Aunt Rosie: Example Questions for Oral Histories
Fertilizing Your Family Tree with Conversation
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 to best 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 scared?
- Which significant historical events have taken place during your lifetime?
- 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 take?
- What feelings did you have about coming to the United States? What was one of the biggest differences between the United States and your previous home?
- 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.