google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html 7 Tools for Your Next Family History Interview | The Armchair Genealogist

7 Tools for Your Next Family History Interview

When the time comes to organize a family history interview, it’s important to have the right tools in front of you to capture those stories.  Of course, if your interview is spontaneous then the right tools are whatever you happen to have with you. However, if you have the opportunity to schedule an interview then taking some time to prepare can go a long way to meeting with success.

Coming prepared with the proper tools is important to feeling relaxed for both yourself and your interviewee.  Nerves can always come into play in an interview even with family.  The more prepared you are the less nervous you’ll be, making your family member more relaxed and your conversation more productive.

Here are 7 Tools I like to have with me when conducting a family history interview.

1.       Prepared interview questions – I am a big advocate of having a prepared list of questions. I’m also a big fan of not sticking to the list. I know that makes no sense. The questions are a merely guideline, they are not written in stone.  You should be fully prepared to follow the conversation wherever it may lead or pull your interview back on track with your next question. There is finesse involved, and that comes with practice, however having a prepared list is an ideal place to start.

2.       Audio or video recorder- I  always audio record my interviews.  If can be on my Sony handheld voice recorder or on my smartphone. Don't forget to make sure you have fully charged batteries or back-up batteries for your digital equipment. Lately, I been thinking of upgrading and if you would like to talk more about digital tools I suggest you stop by Susan Kitchens  website Family Oral History Using Digital Tools.  Of course, there are wonderful apps emerging that can also help, consider StoryPress or Saving Memories Forever to help you record those stories. 

Video recording is definitely becoming more and more of an option these days. Equipment is more affordable and more portable. However, you need to know your interviewee, not everyone will be comfortable with video recording.  If you can get everyone to agree, think how exceptional it would be to capture your family member’s image, voice and inflection along with their story.

3.       Old photographs and family heirlooms, and unidentified photographs all make wonderful conversation starters or can help spark a memory.  Unidentified photographs can become identified, opening the door to new information.  Never under estimate the knowledge your family member may have locked away in their memory.

4.       An updated pedigree chart- Sometimes a pedigree chart can help you keep family lines straight and can often help your family member as well.  I find the elderly often like the visual aid that a pedigree chart can offer, especially if there is tendency to repeat names each generation.

5.       A short bio of your interviewee with all your known facts clearly defined as a reference point can aid in your preparation. I always write a small bio about my relative in advance. It gives me the opportunity to get familiar with my family member's personal information before the interview.  A bio also helps me to prepare my questions and to clarify all information should something questionable arise. 

6.       Pen and paper is always good to have on hand for backup in case the audio and video fail. In addition, it serves for jotting down a quick note for a follow-up question. I never only rely on pen and paper to record an interview. I believe you'll be much more engaged and present in the interview if you don’t have to worry about taking notes.

7.       The Flip-PalMobile Scanner is an awesome interview tool.  If you’re conducting your interview at a family member’s house, they just may pull out some pictures to share with you, but they are often uncomfortable about letting them out of their possession.  The Flip-Pal allows you to scan at high quality and return the photographs within seconds.  

If you would love to know more about conducting a family history interview, download our free ebook, The Complete Guide to the Family History Interview. This guide includes 100 interview questions, tips for creating the right atmosphere. conducting a long distance interview and how to gently guide your interview and much more. 

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Mariann Regan said...

How generous of you to give us this well-organized advice! I'm sure this will help many interviewers. It reminds me of interviewing my second cousin once removed, Eckard Lee, when he was 94 years old. He was so proud of his sharp-as-a-tack memory. He could name many, many lines of ancestors, and he had a lot of funny stories up his sleeve. Sometimes shocking stories.

This was almost 10 years ago now. I had an old-style recorder, which he did not mind at all. Unfortunately, I was lacking much of the preparation you describe, which would have helped! But I just approached him sweetly, nodded appreciatively, and let him go on. My questions were all follow-up, to encourage him to keep talking. In a way, Eckard Lee conducted the interview. I just prodded him a little.

The personality of the interviewee is always partly surprising. Like you say, "follow the conversation wherever it may lead." Thanks for all your good advice.

Jana Last said...


What a great list of interviewing tools! Interviewing family members is one of the subjects in the Family History class I teach at church.

My dad interviewed his mom back in 1977 and recorded it on tape. It's since been transferred to CD. In the interview she sings some Swedish songs, which is a real treasure!

I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

Have a great weekend!

my Heritage Happens said...

I love #3 as I find conversation starters will answer many questions without even asking them, and they may even bring up more questions! Great post!

Smadar Belkind Gerson said...

Thanks for the Review! It came just in time for me. I'm about to meet one of my family elders for the first time this weekend. He is in his late eighties, rarely travels, and is coming to the east coast from California. I owe him a lot, as he is the one who started collecting the information for our vast tree back in the seventies. Your tips will help make my short visit with him much more productive!