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Ten Tips to Get Your Relatives Talking

Gathering information from oral history interviews is an important part of genealogy research. It is the springboard for further research.  The clues gleaned from oral history interviews provide just the clues we need to explore new routes to discovering our ancestors.

Sometimes, however, it can be difficult or uncomfortable to get started or keep our ancestors talking. Here are ten tips to ease the process and lay the foundation for a great interview.

1) Start with a photograph

Sometimes it's hard for both parties in an interview to get started! Make it easier by pulling out an old photo and asking your relative what is going on in the photo as well as when it was taken and where.

2) Choose universal themes

Starting with topics that impact everyone can make the process smoother. Talk about food (everyone eats!) or clothing styles.

3) Holidays and celebrations

Birthdays are a good topic to discuss with your relatives. How did they celebrate their birthdays? Were there certain traditions each year?  If you don't make headway on the birthday topic, try national or religious holidays. Find out if you relative has any good New Year's, Christmas, or Hanukah memories of years past that they can share.

4) Sibling Rivalry Victory-garden-wikipedia

Prod your relative with a question about sibling rivalry. Ask them who got away with everything or who always got into trouble. Did your relative have to share a bedroom or did they have their own space? Who took the longest time in the bathroom and kept everyone waiting?

5) Family Gatherings

Did your family get together with extended family or did you just keep to yourself? This, of course, could be dependent on whether or not family lived close by. How often did your relative see their cousins or extended family and where did that family live?

6) Military and War

Discussions about the military and war are common to most families. Even if your relatives and ancestors weren't in the military they may have been impacted by wars. In fact, service men and women might not want to open up about their direct military experience.  Instead focus on the impact of war back home. Did your relative ever experience rationing of food or gas? Did they ever go without certain items? Did they grow a Victory Garden?

7) School Days

Most children went to school, at least for a short period in their childhood. What was school like for your relative? How long did they attend? Did they enjoy it? What topics did they study?

8) Sports

Sports is a universal topic whether your relative played sports at school, in the neighborhood with the local kids, or simply watched their favorite teams on the tv or listened to them on the radio. What was the favorite sports in your relative's town? Who did they play with? Were there any high school or college stars in the family?

9) Deep memories

Ask your relative who the oldest family member was that they have a memory of meeting during their childhood. Where did that meeting take place? Who else was there? How many times did they get to see that person?

10) Interview two relatives together

Sometimes an interview between an interviewer and an interviewee can be awkward! Remove the discomfort by including two family members together in the conversation. Often times, relatives will have different memories of the same event.  Ask them about vacations they took together or events they attended. You may surprised by the different stories they tell!


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