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List of Genealogy Interview Questions to Ask Family Members

I love family gatherings. They give us a chance to learn about and celebrate our heritage.

Get ready for your family history interview with this huge list of questions.

Get ready for your family history interview with this huge list of questions.

Questions to Ask Your Relatives

Many people have asked me for a list of questions that they could ask their loved ones to get the maximum benefit of their genealogy interview. Having a prepared list of genealogy interview questions is very important to make sure that you stay focused and get the information you want when you conduct your interview.

I have provided some topics here. You will want to choose some of these questions to ask and prioritize them. I recommend asking the questions that are interesting to you first, so that if the person answers each question thoroughly but only answers a few questions, your most important questions have been answered. I also recommend having a big list of questions, so that you don't run out in case, in case the person answers quickly and concisely.

One important note you should keep in mind is that you should actually listen to the answer after you have asked the question. I know that this is common sense, but it is easy to get carried away thinking of the next question or just wait to ask the next question. Take the time to listen to the answer, and allow pauses so the interviewee can search his or her memories. If you listen to the answer, you will show that you are interested, and the interviewee will be more open with you instead of rattling off a quick answer. Also by listening, you will be able to think of and ask follow-up questions out of curiosity instead of following a script.

This happy couple look like they would be happy to answer your genealogy questions.

This happy couple look like they would be happy to answer your genealogy questions.

Rules of the Interview

Before I start the interview, I let my interviewees know my two rules:

  • You don't have to answer the question just because I asked it. Feel free to skip it. I am not trying to dig up dirt, so if I accidentally hit a sensitive topic, I would be happy to move away from it.
  • You won't necessarily know the answer to every question. I would rather ask in case you do know the answer, than not take that chance. If you don't know, that is okay. If you are not sure, it is okay to estimate. Just be sure to let me know that you are not sure.

How to Begin the Interview

I then start the tape recorder or video. I state my name, the date, and the location. I may also record some additional facts, such as an occasion, and who else is in the house i(n case they show up on the tape), etc.

I then start with very simple questions about themselves that are easy to answer. Names, locations, and dates are crucial to have in genealogy, so they are the first things I ask. But it is helpful to mix short answer questions with essay-type questions.

  • What is your name? Who came up with the name? What does it mean?
  • Where and when were you born? Were you born in a hospital?
  • Where and when were you married?
  • What are your parents' names? Where and when were they born?
  • Where do you live? Have you ever lived anywhere else?
  • What are your children's birth dates and where were they born? What are their names?

Choose One Focus for the Interview: Individual, Family, or History

From here, I generally branch out in one of three ways:

  • I focus on the individual,
  • broaden to the family,
  • or ask about their place in history.

I find it difficult to do more than one of these in a single interview. You may consider conducting more than one genealogy interview with the same person or group of people.

Questions That Focus on the Individual

One option is to delve deeper into the individual's life and get a full history on them.

  • If you wrote an autobiography, what would the chapter headings be?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Tell me about your schooling.
  • Did you participate in any sports?
  • Tell me about your first crush / first love
  • How did you meet your spouse?
  • Tell me about your hobbies / interests
  • When did you buy your first car? What was it like?
  • Tell me about the jobs you had as a teenager / young adult
  • Tell me about your military service
  • Tell me about your jobs / career
  • What was it like being a parent?
  • What is it like to be retired?
  • What were the life changing moments in your life?
  • What is your proudest achievement?
  • If you could leave one message to tell your great-grandchildren, what would you tell them?
  • How do you want to be remembered?
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When getting family information, it is helpful to create a chart to keep track of all the individuals being discussed.

When getting family information, it is helpful to create a chart to keep track of all the individuals being discussed.

Questions That Focus on the Family

Another option is to focus on the genealogy and find out about their knowledge of historical information, and get to know about some other individuals in the family. Be sure to ask for birth, marriage and death dates, as well as specific locations, such as cities and counties instead of just states. You may even want to ask them to spell the locations for you so you can make sure you got it down correctly.

  • Where did your parents live? What were they like?
  • Do you have any brothers and sisters? What are their birth dates and where were they born?
  • What are their spouse’s names? Did they have any children?
  • What are your grandparents’ names? Do you know where they were born? Where did they live? Are they still alive? When did they die? Where are they buried?
  • Tell me about your father's brothers and sisters.
  • Tell me about your mother's brothers and sisters.
  • Did you meet your great-grandparents? Do you know their names? Do you know where they are from? Do you know where they are buried?
  • Are you related to anyone famous?
  • Have you or anyone in your family ever been in the news?
  • Are there any illnesses which run in the family?
  • Do you have any news clippings or Family bible or other documents that will help me with my genealogy?
  • I have some old photographs here. Will you help identify the individuals that are in them?
  • May I look at your photo albums? Do you mind if I take photos of some of your photographs?

Please also note that you do not have to limit your questions to that side of the family. If you are interviewing your grandfather on your mother's side, for example, you may want to ask them about your grandfather on your father's side. They may know much more than you think, as they may be neighbors or have heard stories.

The person you are interviewing may have a treasure trove of old photos and documents they may be willing to share with you.

The person you are interviewing may have a treasure trove of old photos and documents they may be willing to share with you.

Questions That Focus on History

Another main topic is to learn more about history by discussing the a particular part of history that the person has experienced or has particular interest and knowledge. Choose one or a few of these topics, and be sure to prepare some follow up questions as well, based on what you know about the individual and what you want to know about that part of history.

When discussing anything, be sure to keep in mind that you are there to obtain information, so try not too interject your own views into the conversation. The following is a list of basic questions, but as you talk about one of these topics, you will want to develop a list of things you want to know, and be sure to ask new questions based on what they tell you.

  • Were you ever in the military? What unit / what war? What was basic training like? Where were you stationed? What job were you assigned to do?
  • Were you involved in the civil rights movement?
  • Were you a member of any social clubs?
  • How has technology changed your life?
  • Tell me what it was like to live in the xx decade?
  • What was life like for the Germans / Irish / Mexicans who immigrated here?
  • How has education changed over the years?
  • How has politics changed over the years?
  • How did you practice your religion?
  • What kind of crafts did you do as a child?
  • Have you ever volunteered for a community organization?
  • Tell me about your grandmother's cooking. What kinds of tools did she have?
  • Have you ever been to a quilting bee? Did anyone in our family quilt?
  • How has child raising changed over the years?
  • How has this city/town changed over the years?
  • Why did our people move from X to Y? What kind of transportation did they use?
  • What important finds have you had in your own genealogical pursuit?
  • tell me about your travels
  • what was it like being a single parent / child of a preacher / community outcast / minority
  • May I look at your photo albums? Do you mind if I take photos of some of your photographs?

Thank You

Showing gratitude to your interviewee for taking the time to give you the information is very important. Leaving them with a thank you gift would be especially appreciated. Here are some ideas for gifts that would be appreciated.

  • A food dish, especially one that has significance in the family, with a recipe card
  • A calendar showing all the birth dates of family members (no years please!)
  • A descendant or ancestor chart, beautifully printed and framed
  • A copy of an old photograph of an ancestor
  • Copies of photos you have taken of your interviewee in the past. She might not have seen them and will be pleased to have a historical memory
  • A copy of an interesting family history document, such as an old marriage license or land map
  • Chocolate (generic but always appreciated!)

If you can't or don't give them a gift at the time of the interview, you can always mail a thank you card with a transcript of the interview or copy of photographs you have taken.

Family History Interview Questions

This list of interview questions is just a start of the many different things you can ask an individual. You should tailor your questions to the person's life history and your interests. Each person is a treasure trove of knowledge, and you will want to make sure that you mine as much of that information as you can.

© 2012 Shasta Matova

Comments: "List of Genealogy Interview Questions"

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 05, 2017:

My grandmother is declining quickly and is sitting lonely in a rehabilitation hospital right now until they can figure out whether she can go home or instead must go to a care facility for the rest of her life. She craves company so I paint her nails and talk to her, but this interview (modified for her mental capacity and stamina) would be an excellent, purposeful activity that would fill much more than one visit for us. Thank you for the suggested questions. She tells very lively stories when you get her going, as she was quite a flirt in her younger years and had quite the bawdy sense of humor.

Joe Fiduccia from Monroe County, PA on January 20, 2015:

I believe this is so important. Gathering information about your history and asking these types of questions are vital in helping your family's legacy continue to live on...long after we are gone. Great list. Thank you!

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on October 25, 2014:

Thank you for your comment Cynthia. I have been making an effort to ask at least one family history question at each family gathering, and recording the conversation with my camera I also write down the gist of the conversation in my family history journal so that these interesting facts are not forgotten. The only way to have it is to ask and to keep asking. I do hope you get a chance to start writing about your experiences and family history soon.

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on October 08, 2014:

wow, Millionaire Tips, this is a comprehensive hub on an area of interest to many. In doing some of our genealogy, we are disappointed to find that there is so little information about the people's lives-- the answers to all the questions you have asked above are not there. We regret so much in not having broached the subject when we had the opportunity with my husband's Mom. And I realize that I need to get writing about the experiences and anecdotes from my elderly, deceased family members, as well as about my husband and myself. Thank you for an inspiring example of what is possible! Voted up and shared! ~Cynthia

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on September 17, 2014:

Thank you JaneA. Big picture questions are a great way to end an interview. Genealogy is so much more than names and dates. You want to get something that gives you a clear idea of what the person is like. I like questions like "How would you like your descendants to remember you?" and "What of your children's accomplishments made you the most happy or proud?".

JaneA from California on September 04, 2014:

Excellent questions and great advice re the interview itself. When I do my interviews I also like to finish finish with some of the "big picture" questions like "Do you have any regrets?" and "Is there anyone you would like to say sorry to?". If the person is elderly, I will even ask "Are you afraid of dying?" Granted, these could be considered outside the scope of genealogy but they often produce answers of interest to the rest of the family!

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on January 02, 2013:

Thanks jainismus. It would be awesome to have a resource that has a list of the generations. I still think the genealogy questions would be helpful though, to add life to all those names (and maybe dates). Where would you go to get information?

Mahaveer Sanglikar from Pune, India on December 31, 2012:

Nice information.

Here in India, the record of genealogy of families are preserved by some traditional record keepers. According to it, a record of 25 generations of our family is available.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on December 30, 2012:

That's great Marlene, I do hope you managed to get the video started. I too look forward to creating a documentary about my family with photographs and interview videos.

Marlene Bertrand from USA on December 29, 2012:

Your tips are quite helpful. I have been wanting to create a video of our family and history but hesitatated - not knowing how to dive in with the questions. I am grateful for your list of questions to help me get started. Thank you.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on August 15, 2012:

Thank youlrc7815. I hope it gets you motivated to ask your family some genealogy questions.

Linda Crist from Central Virginia on August 14, 2012:

Millionaire - this is an awesome hub. What a fantastic job and just packed full of good information.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on July 10, 2012:

Thank you yssubramanyam - I am glad you found this hub informative. You will learn even more by asking your family members these genealogy questions.

yssubramanyam from india, nellore. andhrapradesh on July 08, 2012:

very interesting hub. i learned a lot.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on July 08, 2012:

Thanks kelitad - email genealogy interviews are a great idea, just be sure to print out the answers,. I am glad you enjoyed the questions.

Kelley Wood-Davis from Norwalk, Iowa on July 06, 2012:

Very good hub! I have been doing genealogy for over 13 years but have recently taken to asking my 90 year old grandmother "email" interviews since she lives several hundred miles away and is deaf, so calling her is difficult. I have been trying to think of questions for her to answer, and this hub has some great ones! I am also going to share this with some of my fellow genealogists so they have an idea what to ask if they don't know!

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on July 03, 2012:

Thanks grizzlyff - listening is an important part of asking questions, and there is a lot that you can learn. If you are truly interested, you will be able to think of pertinent follow up questions instead of simply following a checklist.

grizzlyff from Sugar Hill, GA on July 01, 2012:

great group of interview questions, I especially liked the part of how important it is to "listen" to the person, to show your interest, as I have often seen how effective that is in gathering more complete information from a subject.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on June 07, 2012:

Thank you Pamela Kinnaird W, moonlake, DzyMsLizzy and yssubramanyam for the comments, votes and shares. As people gear up for family reunions and family vacations, I hope they take the time to ask a few questions and get some historical information by asking these genealogy interview questions.

yssubramanyam from india, nellore. andhrapradesh on June 07, 2012:

it is the topic of the day. really sixth sense hub.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on June 06, 2012:

What great pointers! I've been doing genealogy at the hobbyist level for many years, now, and have also written hubs about this hobby, but I concentrated on the forms and where to look for information if relatives are not available.

You've given superb lists of questions and suggestions to jog folks' memories.

Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.

moonlake from America on June 06, 2012:

This is a really great idea and I wish I had done it long ago when my grandparents and Dad were still living. Voted Up.

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on June 06, 2012:

This is great, this hub. I wrote one on the same topic a couple years ago because it's dear to my heart, but yours is much more detailed. I really enjoyed it. Voting up, across and sharing.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on April 09, 2012:

Thanks again oceansnsunsets. I hope you get to do a lot more interviews to get all the information you can gather.

Paula from The Midwest, USA on April 08, 2012:

Thank you for that. I miss my grandfather, and feel like those times we had with him were precious. When they go, so much goes with him. As I am doing research now, it turned out to be invaluable. All of us living now, would have had no idea, for the most part. Thanks again, as I hope to do more interviews on other sides of the family as I can. Take care.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on April 08, 2012:

Thanks oceansnsunsets. It seems that I tend to forget what I want to know when I actually meet with someone, so having a list of questions handy is really helpful to make sure I get as much information as I can from my family member when I interview him or her. I am glad you took the time to get the information you wanted from your grandfather.

Paula from The Midwest, USA on April 08, 2012:

Great sets of questions, and it makes me recall sitting and asking my grandfather who was who in certain photos a few times. He was older, and some people can only take so much at a time. There would have been no way to cover all these questions, as as you mentioned it would be good to ask a few really important ones first.

You have a lot to choose from however, so people wouldn't be short on ideas. Thanks for sharing, as this is a very important topic in life to cover.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on March 02, 2012:

Thank you TL. Genealogy certainly is a fascinating story of our family history. You might consider an informal interview to get your family members to talk to you - I have written a hub about how to interview your family members. Hopefully the tips in there will help in your situation.

TL Boehm from Bernalillo, New Mexico on March 02, 2012:

if only I could get my family members to talk to me. This was a great article, comprehensive, well written. I'm a bit of an addict, admittedly - because of the stories one can hear about family members. I find genealogy fascinating.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on March 02, 2012:

Thank you rajan jolly. I do hope that you do interview your parents' relatives and friends to get the information that you need.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on March 02, 2012:

This is an intensive hub. I wish I get the time to make an interview to help with the genealogy of my family. Only a few of my parents' relatives who were close to them are alive. I have always been interested in getting answers to such crucial questions and your hub has made it all so simple to do.

Bookmarking this hub and I'll be reading your hub about how to conduct a family interview. Bookmarked this one too for a read later in the day.

Thanks for such a fine hub.

Voted up and hit all the buttons, not the funny one though.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on February 24, 2012:

Thank you Ruchira. Sometimes it is difficult to come up with a list of questions you want to ask when preparing for a genealogy interview - it seems like there is always something I forgot to ask!

Ruchira from United States on February 23, 2012:


You have nailed this topic by giving such intrinsic details on questions...I don't think I will be doing such an interview in the future but, I loved reading the questions though.

voted up as useful

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on February 23, 2012:

Thank you alocsin. I think giving gifts, especially if they are genealogy related, may get them to understand the importance of recording the family history, and show them the kinds of information you want.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on February 23, 2012:

This is an excellent guide for the amateur genealogist. I like the advice to provide a tangible expression of gratitude. I was also going to suggest to bring either a tape recorder or video camera to record the interview, with their permission, of course. Voting this Up and Useful.

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on February 23, 2012:

Thank you Pamela. I recommend interviewing the new relatives, and even ones you know (and their friends). Getting the full story helps the family history so much richer than just names and dates.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 23, 2012:

I have been researching my ancestry for over 20 years and I think your lists of questions are excellent. I have been able to locate a few relatives and your list would have been helpful. Excellent hub!

Shasta Matova (author) from USA on February 22, 2012:

Thank you Donna. It is always good to know more about your family, even if you don't pick up the genealogy addiction.

Donna Cosmato from USA on February 22, 2012:

Great outline! I've never done any genealogy interviews but I feel like I could with your guide by my side:) I may broaden my horizons and try one or two.

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