Preparing for Family Interviews

Family Interviews

The First Rule of Genealogy is to start with what you know, and work your way back.1c You’ve already identified what you know about your family and learned to record it on the proper forms. Now it’s time to learn how to gather information from family members.

Correspondence Types:

1.Oral interviews

  • In person
  • By telephone


  • Letters (snail mail)
  • E-mail


1.Tasks (in order)

  • Call your relative to ask her for help.
  • Mail pedigrees and family group sheets the same day you call. Whether you’re interviewing her personally or just corresponding by letter, the forms are the best way to begin.
  • A couple days after you think the forms have arrived, follow up with a phone call, preferably on Sunday when she’s not as busy. This call accomplishes three things:

1.Assures that the relative received the forms.

2.Gives you the opportunity to teach her how to fill out the forms.

3.Shows your relative that you’re going to keep calling her until she mails the forms.

2.Content of initial letter:

  • Initial Information — send the information you’ve already collected, such as partially filled-out forms, rough biographical sketches, etc
  • Why send the information you already have?

1.Sometimes things that you remember will spark your relative’s failing memory.

2.Mistakes in your records will goad even a tight-lipped relative into making corrections.

3.Wave a Carrot:

Show the relative that his information will serve as a launch pad, allowing you to then gather and share information that he doesn’t already have.

1.Tell him your class will teach you how to find records he has not yet found, like birth, marriage, and death certificates, family photographs, censuses, obituaries, wills, deeds, immigration records, diaries, and court records.

2.Ask him what he’d like to know about the family, and make arrangements to research these things for him.

3.Guerilla Tactics: Sometimes, the interviewee will not provide any new information because he is embarrassed about the family member in question. Living family members often withhold information on illegitimate births, abusive parents, or criminals. If the interviewee seems to be withholding information out of embarrassment, explain to him the following….

  • You are determined to find the records on the ancestor.
  • If you must rely on sources other than this interviewee, the records you find might paint a picture of the ancestor that doesn’t jive with the interviewee’s information. You will not be able to show his side of the story if he doesn’t share it with you.
  • In order to more accurately research and understand the ancestor, it is necessary to gather all sides of his story.
  • The interviewee can perhaps paint a truer picture of the ancestor by describing the factors, which may have motivated the ancestor’s behavior.

4.Priming the Pump:

  • If the interviewee is still reluctant to tell his story, gather some initial evidence from another source, which will prompt a response. After searching this other source, analyze the data thoroughly, and make some conclusions about it. Contact the interviewee, tell him your conclusions, and see if he has anything to add that will complete the picture.

5.Guilt Works.

  • "My children are beginning to ask me who they are, where they came from. It’s sad that I have no answer for them. Could you help me teach them about their family?"
  • "There’s an old saying that ‘Those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it.’ I thought it would be neat if my kids could learn about their ancestors so they could copy their successes and avoid their mistakes. Could you help me teach them?"

6.Special details by interview type




  • SASE: With your inquiry, send a self-addressed stamped envelope. Don’t expect your relatives to care as much as you do about your family. Make it as easy for them as possible.


  • Make your subject line compelling.

1.Don’t use "Genealogy info." or "Send me all your genealogy research."

  • This tells the receiver you’re interested in taking, but not giving, and that you haven’t narrowed your query to an easily answered question.

2.Use something like "Francis Ritchey: care to collaborate?" This tells the receiver that you’ll share your information with him, and that you’re asking him to send you his records on only one individual, which is an easy thing to do. If the receiver is gung-ho about researching Francis combines Francis’ name with the word “collaborate."


Oral Interviews


Before you call, tape an introduction. Include:

1.Interviewer’s name & location.

2.Respondent’s name, age, & location.

3.Relationship between interviewer & respondent.

4.Date of interview.

5.Example: "This is Michael T. Ritchey of Provo, Utah, interviewing Dora Mae (Harpley) Ritchey of Akron, Ohio. Today is 28 November 1997. Dora is the mother of my father Paul Kenneth Ritchey. She is 80 years old."


  • In many states, it is illegal to record a telephone conversation without permission. Regardless of local laws, however, it is always best to get permission. Failing to do so might cause the interviewee to quit granting interviews.


  • Instead of short-answer questions, ask open-ended ones.
  • Replace "Where did you go to school?" with "What was school like back then?" or "Describe a typical school day back then."


Cassette tapes  — Yes Cassette Tapes.  They can be stored for a very long time.

1.Use 60 or 90-minute cassettes. 120-minute tape is too thin and will break, melt, or stretch easily. The same goes for micro cassettes.

2.After recording, break the tabs off the cassette top. This keeps you from erasing the interview or recording over it. If you later decide to record over the interview, simply cover the tab holes with adhesive tape.


1.Bring extras

2.Rechargeable batteries are cheap and long lasting.

5.Face-to-face interviews

  • Sit at right angles to your subject, with the recorder between you. Psychologically, sitting directly across from the interviewee creates an antagonistic or adversarial atmosphere. Sitting at right angles makes things friendlier, like you’re on the same side. Bring photos, letters, and other artifacts that will jar the subject’s memory.

6.Telephone interviews

Types of microphones


  • This mic is plugged between the phone and the wall jack, and also plugged into the recorder.
  • Produces high quality sound. Takes power from phone line, not tape recorder. Not good for rural lines where electricity is spread thin. Since mic drains some of the remaining power from the line, the recording quality may drop. Fits in the palm of your hand. Costs about $20 at Radio Shack.

2.Suction cup

  • Stick the mic’s suction cup onto the outside of your phone’s earpiece, and plug the mic’s jack into your tape recorder. Has lower quality recording. Takes power from recorder, not phone line. Fits in your pocket. Costs about $9 at Radio Shack.
Copyright (c) Lee Drew 2013-06-24 07:00:00
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About lineagekeeper

Family history research is a favored avenue of relaxation. It is a Sherlock-like activity that can continue almost anywhere at any time. By leveraging a lifetime involvement in technology, my research efforts have resulted in terabytes of ancestral data, earning me the moniker of Lineagekeeper. And yes - We are all related to Royalty.