Preserve Your Legacy: 9 Tips for Interviewing Relatives


by Katy Barnes

My grandma June was a lively, intelligent woman who loved to share memories of her past. Back in college, as I worked on my degree in family history, I came to her house one day to interview her about her life history. She told wonderful stories about her childhood, her parents, and her siblings. I am so glad I captured everything on a cassette tape and was required to transcribe it for my project. I did this with several other relatives as well to fulfill various assignments.

Many years later, my daughter needed to interview someone about what it was like to live during World War II. I immediately thought of Grandma June, who was still very active, both physically and mentally. However, when I called her, I was surprised to hear her say, “I don’t remember.”

We just never know how much longer our relatives will be able to share precious memories of their past and their ancestors. It is so important to take advantage of every opportunity to listen to and record our loved ones so their posterity can remember them.

Here are nine tips to make recording interviews an enjoyable activity for you and your family:

  1. Seize the moment. Most of us have smartphones with voice and video recorders built in. You never know when your relative will start sharing a memory. Be ready to record at any time; if you are, you will capture some precious gems.
  1. Plan an evening. My husband and I invite our parents over once a month for an evening of questions and answers about their lives. We have a nice digital voice recorder for these events, and we send the questions ahead of time so they can think about their answers and bring along any memorabilia they want to share. Our children love hearing their grandparents talk about their courtship, their favorite pets, their first jobs, and the houses they’ve lived in.
  1. Capture the video. It is wonderful to watch our loved ones’ expressions and gestures as they share their life stories, perhaps shedding tears or breaking into joyful smiles. Capturing these moments on video allows us to enjoy them now and after they pass on.
  1. Upload and share. Many family history and social media websites allow you to upload these precious audio and video files and attach them to your ancestors’ profiles. They add a wonderful dimension that goes beyond documents and written stories, and they inspire greater love for your relative. Young people are more likely to find and share these stories if they can access them through the internet.


  1. Let them do the talking. The skillful family history interviewer will say as little as possible and allow their relative to take center stage. Don’t be afraid to let them pause and think before answering a question. Encourage them with your expressions rather than frequent verbal cues. Allow them to ramble and follow their stream of memories. They may end up sharing things you didn’t think to ask about.
  1. Ask open-ended questions. Ask questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” Some examples include: “How did you spend your Saturday afternoons as a child?” “How did you spend your time before the internet and cell phones were available?” “What do you remember about your grandparents?”
  1. Record songs and poems. Does your relative have favorite songs he or she is always singing or a favorite poem he or she memorized as a child? Invite them to sing or recite—you’ll be glad you did.
  1. Bring photos and memorabilia. Prepare beforehand by gathering photos and scrapbooks that will trigger memories and fuel the narrative. Keep a pencil handy to label those photos if you haven’t already.
  1. Break it down. These days, we are accustomed to scrolling through social media, flipping through magazines, and channel surfing. We are more likely to catch a story and re-share it if it is relatively short. Once you have your interview, try to break it down into smaller chunks that can be labeled by topic, such as “First Date” or “Saturday Afternoons.” Audio and video editing software make this editing process simple. You can also start and stop your audio and video recorder with each question you ask.

Katy Barnes works for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in researching and finding immigrant ancestors. Legacy Tree also has numerous onsite agents in hundreds of countries worldwide who can access archives and repositories for records that may be necessary in tracing your immigrant ancestors.


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