We’ve created this guide to help you get ready for your interview. Please read carefully and take notes. Prepare your questions ahead of time; this will ensure that the process goes well and is rewarding for you and the interviewee.
When interviewing members of your family, be sure to seek out what they can tell you about the past and also what they can tell you about life in the present.
Remember that the stories and memories you hear are valuable — not necessarily because they represent historical facts — but because they embody human truths and are a person’s particular way of looking at the world.
Structure the interview. Think of the interview as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Build on your questions and link them together in a logical way.
Start with a question or a topic that will help put the person at ease. You might want to begin with some basic biographical questions, such as, “Where were you born?” “Where did you grow up?”
Or perhaps you could ask about a story you once heard him or her tell about the topic you are interested in. These questions are easy to answer and can help break the ice.
Remember to avoid questions that will bring only a yes or no response. And, in order to get as much specific information as possible, be sure to ask follow-up questions: “Could you explain?” “Can you give me an example?” or “How did that happen?”
Show interest and listen carefully to what is being said. Keep eye contact and encourage him or her with nods and smiles.
Participate in the conversation without dominating it. Try not to interrupt and don’t be afraid of silences — give the person you are interviewing time to think and respond. Be alert to what they want to talk about and be prepared to detour from your list of questions if he or she takes up a rich subject you hadn’t even thought of!
Some Possible Questions
Here are some questions that might help guide an interview with a family member about family folklore and local traditions. Pick and choose among them to suit your own interests, and change the wording if you wish. Ultimately, the most useful questions will be those that you develop yourself based on your knowledge of your own family.
Remember not to tie yourself to a formal list of questions; rather use your questions as guideposts for the interview. Be flexible and have fun!
- What is your name?
- Where and when were you born?
- Where did you grow up?
- Where have you lived?
- What jobs have you had?
- What do you do for a living now?
Q: What do you know about your family name?
Q: Do you know any stories about how your family first came to the United States?
Q: If your family member is a first-generation immigrant, you might ask him or her:
- Why did you leave to come to the United States?
- What was the journey like?
- What were some of your first impressions and early experiences in this country?
Q: What languages do you speak?
- Do you speak a different language in different settings, such as home, school, or work?
- Are there any expressions, jokes, stories, celebrations where a certain language is always used?
- Can you give some examples?
Q: What stories have come down to you about your parents and grandparents?
Q: What are some of your childhood memories?
Q: How are holidays traditionally celebrated in your family?
- What holidays are the most important?
- Are there special family traditions, customs, songs, foods?
- Has your family created its own traditions and celebrations?
Q: Does your family hold reunions?
Q: What family heirlooms or keepsakes and mementos do you possess?
- Why are they valuable to you?
- What is their history?
- How were they handed down?
- Are there any memories or stories connected with them?
Local History and Community Life
Q: Describe the place where you grew up.
- What was it like?
- How has it changed over the years?
Q: How have historical events affected your family and community?
- For example, what were some of your experiences during World War II?
- The Civil Rights Movement?
- Vietnam War?
- Cultural Traditions/Occupational Skills?
Q: How did you first get started with this particular tradition/skill? What got you interested?
Q: In what context is the skill/tradition performed? For whom? When?
Q: What do you value most about what you do? Why?
Q: What do you think is the future of this tradition? What are its challenges and opportunities? Are others learning and practicing the tradition?
Q: Do you have anything that you would like to add that we haven’t covered?
Q: Thank you for your time; this concludes this interview.