How to Get Genealogy Information from Your Relatives - dummies

How to Get Genealogy Information from Your Relatives

By April Leigh Helm, Matthew L. Helm

It’s likely that you have some valuable but overlooked sources of genealogical gold. You may be looking right through them as they hover around the dessert table at the family reunion, reminding you about every embarrassing moment from your childhood, and overstay their welcome in your home. Yes, they are your relatives.

Interviewing your relatives is an important step in the research process. Relatives can provide family records and photographs, give you the proverbial dirty laundry on family members, and identify other people who might be beneficial to talk to about the family history. When talking with relatives, you want to collect the same type of information that you provide about yourself when you write your biographical sketch.

Your parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are all good candidates for information about your family’s most recent generations. Talking to relatives provides you with leads that you can use to find primary sources.

You can complete family interviews in person or through a questionnaire. Conducting these interviews in person is much better; it’s a lot easier to ask additional questions and follow up on leads! However, if meeting your relatives in person is not feasible, by all means, drop them an e-mail, open a Skype session, or write an old-fashioned letter.

Skype is a software and service that you can use for voice and video calls. The video calling feature allows you to talk face-to-face over the Internet. For more information on Skype, check out their website.

If you’re going to write an e-mail or letter to a relative, take a look at’s Request Genealogical Information from Family Members. A nice thing about’s site is it offers this letter translated into other languages, including French, German, Italian, and Spanish. You can access these foreign-language versions of the letter from the Census Abstracts and Form Letters page.

If you prefer to write your own letter (without guidance from, you can always use an online translator to convert your letter or e-mail into another language.

There’s no easy way to say this — you may want to begin interviewing some of your older relatives as soon as possible, depending on their ages and health. If a family member passes on before you have the chance to interview him or her, you may miss the opportunity of a lifetime to find out more about his or her personal experiences and knowledge of previous generations.

Here are a few tips to remember as you plan a family interview:

  • Prepare a list of questions. Knowing what you want to achieve during the discussion helps you get started and keeps your interview focused. However, you also need to be flexible enough to allow the interviewee to take the conversation where he or she wants to go. Often, some of the best information comes from memories that occur while the interviewee is talking — rather than being generated strictly in response to a set of questions.

  • Bring a recorder to the interview. Use a recorder of your choice, whether it’s your phone, tablet, computer, an audiocassette recorder, or a video camera. Make sure that you get permission from each participant before you start recording. If the interviewee is agreeable and you have the equipment, video-record the session. That way, you can see the expressions on his or her face as he or she talks.

  • Use photographs and documents to help your family members recall events. Often, photographs can have a dramatic effect on the stories that the interviewee remembers. If you have a lull in the interview, pulling out a photo album is an excellent way to nudge things along.

  • Try to limit your interviews to two hours or less. You don’t want to be overwhelmed with information, and you don’t want the interviewee to get worn out by your visit. Within two hours, you can collect a lot of information to guide your research. And remember, you can always do another interview if you want more information from the family member.

    Actually, you should do subsequent interviews — often the first interview stimulates memories for the individual that you can cover during a later interview. Who knows? It might lead to a regularly scheduled lunch or tea time with a relative whom you genuinely enjoy visiting.

  • Be grateful and respectful. Remember that these are people who have agreed to give you time and answers. Treat them with respect by listening attentively and speaking politely to them. And by all means, be sure to thank them when you’ve completed the interview.