Proper interviewing techniques can minimize the likelihood of misinformation and considerably enhance one’s knowledge and sense of family history. While you are gathering information and documentation, oral interviews aren’t often considered. Memories are prone to lapses, distortions, and sometimes errors. Yet we know as genealogists we can’t find a source that is totally reliable and without flaw. Please consider oral interviews as an important part of your research process.

  • IDENTIFY YOUR GOALS – Decide before you begin to collect facts or gather material or add color to your existing family history.
  • HOW AND WHEN TO CONDUCT INTERVIEWS – It is advised to visit with the informant at least twice before beginning your interviewing process. The first interview should be short. Its goal is to gather the essentials – names, dates, places, and stories about the family origins – a foundation for your research. Subsequent interviews concentrate on two factors: the researcher’s expanded knowledge and presenting materials that will often jog new memories of those you are interviewing. Beyond these first interviews, follow-up interviews can explore a broad range of historical and personal issues.
  • PLANNING THE CONTENTS OF YOUR INTERVIEW – Prepare a basic list of questions and prepare in advance. This helps the interview to stay focused but will also allow for unexpected gems that may lead down their own paths. Questions should be phrased carefully. Avoid "leading" question. Instead of asking, "Wasn’t his mother named Sarah?" you could ask, "What was his mother’s name? Also, the best questions are open-ended ones. The skillful interviewer avoids any question that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Examples of effective questioning:
  1. How did your family support itself during the Depression?
  2. How was your daily life affected?
  3. Where did you serve in the Military?
  4. What is your favorite memory of your grandfather?
  5. What words of wisdom did he impart to you?
  6. How close were you to your grandmother?
  7. What did you like about her?
  8. What features do you remember about her?
  • USING ORAL HISTORY – Aside from all of the clues to be collected, oral history can add depth and human interest to compiled genealogies or individual biographies. For example and sake of illustration: Meals were important to Italian-American life, and the Peterelli household was no different. To the immigrant generation, food was a symbol of life, and community and family – the product of the father’s labor, prepared by the mother. Rosa Peterelli would ask every visitor, "Did you eat?" or "Are you hungry?" and then she’d set a plate.
  • IMPORTANCE OF DOCUMENTING AND INCLUDING NOTES – All full recording of sources is just as important for oral interviews as it is with any other type of research notes. To use the above as an example. 1. Author’s interview, 22 March 1922, with Isabella Peterelli (300 Second Avenue, New York, New York), aged 89, daughter of Roberto and Rosa (DeLoreto) Paterelli.
  • ENDING YOUR INTERVIEW – An African proverb holds "When an old person dies, a whole library disappears." Thus, an effective interviewer not only asks and records who, when and where but it also adds how, what and why.

How to Record an Interview

  1. Schedule a time for the oral history in advance.
  2. Bring a tape recorder, or video camera, or pen and paper or all. Make sure you get permission to record or tape beforehand.
  3. Make sure to record the date of the interview.
  4. Ask questions to start things off and don’t be afraid to go off subject. If the interview really gets off track, gently steer them back to your question.
  5. Don’t rush for answers. Watch for body language to see if the person is uncomfortable or if they want to talk about something else.

If you ask "when" something happened many times the answer will be "I don’t know," because the person can’t remember the exact date. Maybe a photo or an event that happened the same year would help the person remember. Ask questions like, "About how old were you when…" Using this technique will likely get more answers. (Compiled and written by Flora L. VerStraten)