Sunday, February 28, 2016

The 21 Day Genealogy Challenge - Day 4: Interviewing Family Members

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
 – George Bernard Shaw.

Welcome to day four of the 21 Day Genealogy Challenge!  Everyone has a story to tell.  It is important that we record these stories while we have access to the people who can share them with us, so today we are going to focus on interviewing family members.  

We are fortunate to live in a time when technology allows for us a variety of ways to conduct an interview.  We can use our laptops, iPads, or iPhones to record either audio or video.  There are programs available in app form for the sole purpose of interviewing and sharing.  If the latest technology has you baffled, there are still tape recorders that will do the trick!

While at the recent RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, I met some wonderful innovators who created new platforms that offer a variety of ways to obtain stories from our living relatives.  One of these companies was StoryCorps.  You can read about their program and how to incorporate your interviews into your family history by visiting my previous blog entry titled Sharing Family Memories.   StoryCorps happens to be a company that piqued my interest, but there are others on the market you may find to suit your needs.

Genealogical sites such as and allow for you to upload recorded interviews into your tree.  In you need to go to your ancestor’s profile.  Select GALLERY.  On the left side of the screen you will see the prompt SHOW.  Click on that and then select AUDIO.  In you will go to your ancestor’s profile page and select MEMORIES, and from there, select AUDIO.

We are getting ahead of ourselves.  Before we can upload our interview, we have a few things we need to do.


Brainstorm and make a list of the relatives you would like to interview.  Of course, they need to be living.  (Oh how I would love to interview a few of my long deceased ancestors!)  When you have chosen a person you would like to interview, reach out and ask him/her if you may visit and conduct an interview for family history purposes.  If you are turned down, don’t be offended.  This may not be a good time for them.  You can ask again in the future.  If you receive a positive response, set a time and date for you to visit and conduct your interview.


Show up on time and be prepared.  Showing up to the interview late and unprepared gives the message that you are not serious about your task.  Be respectful of your relative’s time.  An interview should not be exhausting.  Limit the amount of time to somewhere between 15 to 90 minutes.  As the interviewer, you will not be doing most of the talking, but instead, prompting your relative to share memories.  A few days before your interview, send a few questions they can review and prepare to talk about.  You may even want to bring with you a few pictures to use as a prompt.  Pictures are a great tool to open the memory floodgates!

Here are samples of some interview prompts.

“Tell me about your childhood.  What were some of the chores you were required to help with?” 
            “Did you have any family pets when you were growing up?”
            “Did you have a favorite movie or movie star you idolized as a teen?” 
            “What kind of laundry machine did your family have?”
“Who was the disciplinarian in your home?  Were there any times you got in trouble that you look back now and laugh?”

The types of questions you can pose are limitless!

Bring with you the recording device you wish to use.  It is wise to bring a back-up device as well.   If you are recording “old school” with a tape recorder, you may want to bring two with you.  If you are relying on modern technology of the iPhone, you may want to bring along an iPad or a tape recorder.  You will record with both devices at the same time.  If one fails you, the other one will hopefully come through.


Test your recording devices!  Record yourself saying, “Test! Test! “ and then play it back so you are certain the device is working.

Back in 1993, my husband scheduled an interview with his grandparents who were visiting from Utah.  The interview was amazing! Grandpa Shifflett had a lot of great stories to tell us and we learned a lot about his life as a young man.  Unfortunately, we failed to do a test with the tape recorder before we commenced with the interview.  It wasn’t until much later when we went to listen to the tape that we learned the volume had been turn to the lowest level and not one word of the interview was recorded.  Grandpa Shifflett is gone now, and with him went those amazing stories!  What a lesson for us to learn.  I still cringe when I think about it.

Once you are convinced all systems are GO!, then you may begin your interview.  As you begin, state your name, the date and time you are conducting the interview, who you are interviewing and where the interview is taking place.  Here is an example:

“Good afternoon.  My name is Melyssa Webb and today is February 28, 2016.  It is currently 3:15 in the afternoon.  I am sitting with my grandfather, Frank Watts, in our dining room.”

Now, why do you think we gave that information?  It is important for documentation to know who conducted the interview.  Knowing the date allows us an idea of how old the interviewee may be (assuming we already know their birth date) and when the interview took place.  By having an idea of the time of day and the location being the dining room, any background noise picked up will make sense.  Keep in mind, if you conduct an interview in the house, don’t have the dishwasher or laundry machine running in the background.  It may overpower the voices and some words may be lost.


You have completed your interview and thanked your relative for their time and for sharing their memories.  Once you have returned home, be certain to play back the entire interview.  As you listen, take notes.  You may be prompted to write down questions for a follow up interview.  You may have received details about people, dates and places that you can enter into your family tree.  Some of this information may be just what you need to help tear down a genealogical brick wall!

Transcribe and Share

Transcription is not something you should procrastinate for a number of reasons.  Transcription is a part of the process you began and you will want to see it through to completion.  Tapes go missing.  Recordings get deleted.  It would be a shame for you to lose the interview.  

Schedule a time within 3 days of the interview to sit down and transcribe.  Once you have transcribed the interview go back and check for errors and omissions.  When you feel confident that the interview transcription is ready to present to others, share all – or select portions – on your family tree.  With the permission of your interviewee, which you should have obtained before the interview, upload the interview into your genealogy program.  Offer a copy of the transcribed interview to your relative.  It is, after all, their interview, too.

Here is your 5 Point Review:
·       Call a relative and request the interview and plan the date.
·       Prepare questions and provide your relative with a copy so that he/she may have time to think and recall memories.
·       Test your recording device before the interview.
·       When you return home, listen to the entire recording and take notes. 
·       Within a few days of the recording take the time to transcribe the interview.

Congratulations! You have completed day four of the 21 Day Genealogy Challenge! Clearly this will take more than one day, but you are on your way to preparing for one of many interviews that will take place in the future.

 If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them in the Blog Comment section below.  Invite your friends to join this challenge by sharing this blog with them on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.  The share icons are just below this blog entry.

Thank you for joining this challenge and remember…..

History not shared is History forgotten!