An Introduction to Oral History and Genealogy Projects

How many times have you heard someone say, “I wish I had made a recording of my grandmother while she was still living, to hear her voice and hear her describe our ancestry”? Oral history interviews and genealogy projects are a wonderful way to document and connect about family stories and cultural history.

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Here are some tips on how to start your project:

Genealogy Research

Conduct Primary Source Research

Primary sources such as letters and court documents can help fill in the gaps in your family’s history. Some places to begin might be:

  • Courthouses
  • State, national, and historical archives.
  • Public libraries, which often have genealogy rooms or sections.
  • Family History Centers – These are usually found in major cities and set up by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as genealogy resource centers.
  • You may utilize microfilm, microfiche and online databases – and the librarians and staff will be able to help.

Consult Online Resources

  • – gain access to this website at a library or by subscribing online. By supplying known names and facts you will start building a family tree. As you discover links to census and marriage records, death certificates, other family trees, etc., you will expand what you know about your heritage.
  • Online databases of county records, family papers, family bibles, maps, cemetery records, historical archives, and historical libraries, are often treasure troves of information. If these require a subscription, you may be able to get access through a local library.

Oral History Interviews

Preparing for the Interview

  • Consider who might best tell the story of the family, and learn what you can about the interviewee.
  • Obtain the interviewee’s biographical material or conduct a web search for some basic biographical information.
  • Find out what you can about the person’s genealogy or family history. If possible, sketch a basic family tree to guide the interview.
  • Conduct any specialized research related to individual’s background or career.
  • Prepare an outline of the questions on note cards, which you can shuffle if you change order, and which do not have the background noise of looseleaf paper or a laptop.
  • This will give you a basic skeleton and give you questions to ask if there are lulls in the conversation. You may choose to provide this to the interviewee ahead of time.
  • Obtain consent and information about the use of the interviews. You can find examples of permission forms for oral history interviews online.

Interviewing Techniques

  • Remember that the interviewee is the focus.
  • Be comfortable with periods of silence and do not interrupt.
  • Chronological questions are usually best, but be flexible if you go off-track.
  • Ask open-ended rather than “yes/no” questions.
  • Focus on listening and follow up if clarification is needed.
  • Be open to hearing about disturbing experiences or uncomfortable topics. Let the interviewee decide how much or how little they would like to say, and be sure to let them know that they may stop the interviewee at any time.
  • Provide a comfortable setting to discuss sensitive topics and ease into difficult questions.


  • Be sure to record the interview with an audio or audio-visual device. Do not trust that you will take sufficient notes or remember all that is said. Capturing the teller’s voice and expressions adds a great deal of information to the record.
  • Lighting for videotaping, if needed.
  • Tripod for videotaping.
  • Lavalier microphone or handheld microphone (optional).
  • A quiet location.

Topics for Questions

  • Early background – childhood remembrances
  • Parents and family
  • Neighborhood and Community
  • Education – friends, favorite teachers, extracurricular activities
  • Teenage Years and Adulthood
  • Work / Employment
  • Social life / Relationships
  • Children
  • Church / Politics / Hobbies
  • Effect of social events and historical events on the interviewee and his/her family

Genealogical Questions

  • How far back in time can you go with what’s known about your family heritage?
  • Who is your oldest known ancestor? Any dates of birth, death, marriage?
  • Where did your ancestors live? What towns? What counties? What countries?
  • What did they do? How did they get there?
  • Who in the family is connected to who?
  • Note: It is often helpful to sketch a family tree.

For more information, the Southern Oral History Program offers great resources on principles, tips, and tricks for conducting oral history interviews.