(from the Smithsonian National Museum of American
How to Write Your Own
By conducting what is known as a genealogical
study, you can explore the history of your family by asking questions and
recording important information.
Genealogy (jean-e-ology) simply means the study or investigation of
ancestry and family histories. The history of your family and community is also
a part of your history!
Step 1: Be Prepared!
Many important decisions must be made before
you can begin your genealogical study.
Who should I interview?
The people who can best help you gather a rich
family history are older relatives. Can you interview your grandmother? By
asking your grandmother about her grandmother, you will learn about your
great-great grandmother a woman who shaped your family history, but also someone
about whom you may know very little.
Perhaps you have an aunt or uncle who can tell you the story of places
your family has lived? The history of your community is also an important part
of your history. Do you have a neighbor that has lived in your town for many
years? If you have many people to choose from, try to think of someone older who
would be comfortable answering detailed questions.
What do I need?
You must consider what type of interview will
be best suited to the family member being interviewed.
- Tape recorder - This is a very
popular choice for genealogical studies. You can record a lot of information
on tapes, and listening to the voice of the person being interviewed makes for
a more personal and memorable interview. Make sure you have enough batteries
and blank tapes, and that your tape recorder is in good working
- Video camera - Videotaping is
another good way to record your interview. Adding a visual component to your
interview makes for an even more emotional and memorable interview than a
- Note Pad - Some people may feel
uncomfortable being taped. In this case taking notes would be best. You may
also want to take notes even if you tape your interview on cassette or video.
It will help direct your interview in an organized
Step 2: The
Since you want the person you are interviewing
to tell stories, try to formulate questions that will be answered with lots of
detail, instead of questions that would get "yes" or "no" answers. Simplify your
questions to make them easier to answer. Do not ask a series of questions within
a question. Give the person you are interviewing enough time to answer. One
question can trigger a memory and lead into a story about your cultural or
Here are some questions to
- What are the names of your
- Where were they
- Where were you
- What year was it when you were my
- Tell me about the town you lived in
when you were growing up?
- Did you have any customs or
traditions celebrated on holidays?
- What was your favorite thing to do
when you were my age?
- How was going to school different
for you than it is for me?
- What major news stories have
affected your life?
- Did you ever move as a
- What one invention has changed your life for the better?
- What was the best decision you have made in your life?
- Who was the first president you voted for?
- What is your wish for me?
The questions above are only a
guide. Countless questions can be asked to suit your needs. You can also ask,
"Is there a question you thought I would ask, but did not?" This gives the person you are
interviewing an opportunity to talk about a subject of their choice, and a story
or lesson they want to pass on to you!
It might be a good idea to bring
along family objects, photographs or other documents to trigger memories or
other information for your study. Maybe you have an old newspaper clipping of
something important that happened in your town. Holidays and family reunions are perfect
opportunities to conduct a genealogical study. Your other family and friends will
almost always be excited to sit in on your interview, and may be able to add
their own stories. Make sure the
person you are interviewing is comfortable in every sense of the word! Make the physical environment pleasing
for this person. Have them sit in a comfortable seat. Also make the interview comfortable for
them in other ways. Be sure to tell them exactly why you want to interview them,
and how you plan to use the information you have gathered. If their mind is not at ease, you may
not get all the information you are looking for. You may want to visit with them again
and ask new or expanded questions. Their answers may be richer in detail once
they have had more time to think about them. Above all, have fun! Pay close attention to the stories you
are being told, and cherish the special opportunity you have to learn about your