Conducting an Oral Family History

Ancestral Profiling
a monthly column by Colleen McHugh


Social Work education programs dedicate an entire course on the art of interviewing. We learned how to present ourselves to an interviewee, how to make the interviewee as comfortable as possible, and how to ask questions in a manner that would solicit detailed answers. These same skills are vital to the genealogist using Oral Family Histories as a research tool. The References section of this article will point you in the right direction as to the “what” to ask; this article will focus more on the “how” to ask.


“Green” Interviewing

Oral Family Histories can be conducted with any relative of any age, though it’s fair to say we tend to focus on our elderly relatives to gather genealogical information. Either way, it is important to make sure the environment in which you are conducting the interview is comfortable for the one answering the questions. Consider the following environmentally-friendly tips:

Location: Be sure the place is one that will help your interviewee focus on you, not on the environment. For example, if you are interviewing your great-grandmother, you may need to consider a calm environment like her living room as opposed to a busy environment like a coffee shop.

Time: When setting up the interview, ask your subject what time of day he/she feels would be best. Go ahead and assume they know when they are most “up” to talking!

Temperature: Be sure to ask your subject if the environment you chose is comfortable in terms of heat or cooling. This may mean a level of discomfort for you if there is a disparity of temperate comfort zones, but you are the one prying into their lives!

Length: Consider breaking your interview into several sessions if your subject tends to tire easily.


Open Sesame

How we ask questions is often much more important than what we ask. This is particularly true if we are seeking information that will teach us about our ancestors as people, which generally requires elaboration on certain details. There are two main types of questions:

Closed Questions: Elicit a single, factual answer.  “What is your name?” is a closed question. These questions are good for seeking demographic information about your ancestors.

Open Questions: Elicit thoughtful elaboration that often tell a story. “Tell me what it was like growing up in the Depression” is an example of an open-ended question.

Thinking in Tangents: Though we go into the interview with a specific set of questions for our subjects, the most successful interview will embrace “tangents” and will take advantage of times when the interviewee elaborates beyond the question asked. Don’t get locked in by what’s on your question list. DO ask questions about content discussed by your subject, even if the information was not originally on your list. Following your interviewee’s lead and adding questions based on their discussion shows you are listening. This factor alone will increase the likelihood that he/she will continue to cooperate with the interview.


Focus on Feelings

In the course of the interview emotions may get the best of the subject. Not all family stories are good, feel-happy tales; some stories are painful and bring about feelings of sadness. It is important to realize this before you even start the interview and discuss the potential for sad memories with the interviewee before even starting.  Always give the interviewee the power to stop the interview – either for a break, or for good. Our goal should never be to force a story out of someone, but to acknowledge the story for the impact it had on the lives of those who lived it, and on the lives of their descendants.


That said it’s important not to stop asking questions every time emotions come to the surface. Use the opportunity to acknowledge the feelings and empathize with subject for what they did or are experiencing. Empathy is the best way to show someone the respect of listening, and believe it or not, it encourages elaboration. If you are unsure if the emotions are too much for the interviewee, simply ask!


Deliver What You Promise, and Don’t Deliver What You Promise

As genealogists, we’ve learned to put the truth into perspective. We’ve learned to see the truth as part of history that can’t be changed, and we’ve learned that family secrets or “shame” that may have occurred in the past are not a reflection on our own worth today. Yet the questions asked in an Oral Family History might hit a sour note with the interviewee, and he/she may withhold information they don’t want shared.  Face it: We’re there to learn, but often we are also there to publish the family history and share it with current generations. Don’t hide the fact that you plan on publishing the family history for others, and don’t be surprised if an interviewee refuses to divulge certain information. Be sure at the outset you and the subject are both clear about the expectations and goals of the interview. If you should promise an interviewee to NOT publish a specific story or fact, don’t publish that specific story.





Texas AgriLife Extension Services, Dept. of Family and Consumer Science: A Family History Questionnaire

Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews, by Kimberly Powell



© Colleen McHugh 2012

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of The In-Depth Genealogist. Receive The In-Depth Genealogist free by subscribing HERE.