Interviewing Relatives

  • 16th May 2020

One of the things we suggest when people begin their family history is to ask the family and find out what people know and can tell you, and if there are certificates, photos, letters, diaries or other information which could help. Much of this won’t be in official records, and it can also save a lot of time.

Often people say that there isn’t anyone from previous generations left, but sometimes there is, so they make a priority to speak to them. With the current situation we mostly can’t go and see relatives, but it can also be a great excuse to getting in touch and talking to them. Having a conversation and asking them about their life, their memories and what they know about the family.

It is something people regret putting off. Lots of people recollect parts of stories they were told, and wish they’d made notes, took notice and made the effort at the time. Or it may be that nothing was ever mentioned and there is a big gaping hole. So if there is anyone you can speak to it is something we strongly recommend.

We’ve put together some guidance from our experience of oral history over the years.


Why interview?

A lot of official records consist of names, dates and factual information. However what were people actually like? Why did they move? How did couples meet? Why did they get into a particular trade? How were particular people connected where the official records are confusing? Are there any interesting stories? And why are they interesting to you?

Interviewing people can clarify lots of information and help you with who you need to search for and where to look, especially where it might be a bit confusing. It can also answer the ‘why’ questions which official records aren’t concerned with. Stories emerge and details which provide colour to your ancestors and makes them more than names on a page.


How do you do an interview?

Normally we would recommend visiting the relative and recording on a recording device. However currently we are restricted in this, to help prevent the spread of the virus.

So for the moment we recommend one of the online communication platforms, Skype, Zoom etc. If you can do it with video that’s good because you can see the person and pick up on facial signals. Some platforms allow recording, which means you can listen back later rather than have to scribble like mad. Make sure they know though!

You could also suggest that they write down their memories, which some may prefer.

To help prompt them you might want to show them old photos, or ask them to have out old photo albums, which will bring back memories. Stories and anecdotes often spark more thoughts and memories.

Photos are useful for prompting conversations



There are some important ethical issues to think about to ensure that the person you are interviewing is happy with what happens. Firstly you need to discuss what you are doing and why, and ensure they are happy and comfortable with the interview and know how it will be used. Explain the purpose, to record for family history purposes.

Who will hear what is recorded, or read it? Discuss if you’ll share it with wider family, or even pass it further. Make sure they know if others will hear and it is not just a private conversation, and check they are happy with this.

Life StoriesWhat if they reveal something controversial or secret? It is good idea to let them hear or read what they said to ensure that they know what they said and are happy with it. If there is anything you think may be contentious which you probably want to check before passing on. This is particularly important if names of other people are mentioned and they may read or hear it.

Is it true? Remember this is a recollection from their point of view.  Everyone’s recollection will be slightly different, and sometimes we may completely misremember. Often you can’t rely completely on what’s said, especially if they were a lot younger and may not have been fully aware of things at the time, but even if misremembered there is often some truth in there, and leads to places to follow up when searching. Family connections can be confusing, especially when everyone calling older people auntie and uncle, even if not blood related!

Sometimes there may be something you know isn’t true but it is easier to go along with it. The former England footballer Wilf Mannion used to say about how after a Great Britain v Europe game at Hampden Park to celebrate the end of WWII, the players were treated badly and had to go home on the train 3rd class. His biographer had photo evidence that there was a slap up dinner after where they were guests of honour, and other players confirmed this, but Wilf was adamant, and it had to go into his autobiography!


What do you ask?

It is good if the person is able to say what they want to say and it comes naturally, but often people need prompts. There are also probably specific information you might want too.

So have a think about potential questions, and jot some down. As much as possible have open questions which requires a longer more descriptive answer, rather than closed yes/no answers, although those are useful for clarification. For example “What was it like working at the shop?” and “So you often worked more than 12 hours a day?”

There are a few places to look for suggested questions. However there may be specific topics you want to know about, based on existing knowledge about your family.

Try to keep the conversation flowing rather than systematically go through question list.

Family Tree magazine have some suggestions here 

As part of our Life Stories project we had suggested questions for interviewers – we had a lot of suggested questions as we needed to cover lots of different experiences, but they may be helpful. – Life Stories

What next?

Back up what you have. If you’re writing up notes do it as soon as possible whilst it is fresh in your mind so you can remember what you said and can read your own notes. These can either be notes, or a full transcript.

Check with who you interviewed that what was said and what you’ve written up is correct.

Share with other family members, if this has been agreed.


So if there are relatives you can speak to, why not get in touch with them and see if you can interview them?


The Oral history Society have advice on their website too

We have lots of experience of oral history, running our own projects and providing training and support. Maggie, one of our archivists, is a regional networker for the Oral History Society. If you are thinking of carrying out an oral history project in the future we’d love to talk to you. We have some guidance on things to think about on our website too.



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