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Interviewing Relatives


The most important thing I can tell you here is to talk to all your senior-generation relatives immediately after your parents. You don't know how much longer you have before your senior generations are gone and you're the older generation, so don't put this step off! The most often heard complaint is that the senior family members [grandparents, great aunts, etc.] were not asked about the family before they passed away. Hence, all that rich information went with them. Find out who your parent's oldest living relatives are and plan to question them first.

Even a distant relative can be a veritable gold mine of information about your ancestors. If you aren't really interested in researching your family now, talk to those seniors and write down their stories before they have passed away and taken generations of information with them.

  • Plan only 45-minute interviews with these senior relatives as they will tire quickly. Plan your time around them, not vice versa.
  • Know what questions you want to ask before you begin your interviews. That means going over the notes you already have and writing down exactly what you want to know.
  • A good idea is to record your interviews. You'll be more relaxed and not have to worry about being sure to accurately write down something a relative has told you. Get names, dates, places, and relationships they know.
  • For optimum results, ask direct, pointed questions - not generalized ones like, "tell me everything you know about the family."
  • Remember the Cardinal Rule and plan to follow-up on everything you are told.

Next, contact the remaining family members. Has anyone else in the family done any research? If so, their work can save you hundreds of hours [PROVIDED they've documented their work].

Orally interview as many family members as you can following the guidelines above. Send questionnaires to those relatives long distance from you. [Be sure to include a self addressed, stamped envelope.] Questionnaires should have direct questions with enough space for replies so your relatives can write directly on your pages. You can also telephone [being sure to have direct questions lined up and paper and pencil handy to write their responses] or e-mail them.

Once you have entered all the information available from your home sources, consider anyone else in your family might have information they would be willing to share.

Please, be considerate of others and their privacy and views. You are asking for help and they will be doing you a huge favor by answering your questions. Understand that your relatives do NOT owe you anything, including information. Treat those relatives with all the respect that you would also want.


  • Keep your correspondence brief and courteous but specific, with the request stated exactly. Don't ramble.
  • Unless you are sending a questionnaire, limit your request to 2-3 direct questions.
  • Questionnaires should have direct questions, leaving space for the targeted answers.
  • Ask about anyone else who might have some information.
  • Offer to share information.
  • Offer to pay for copies of the records, and special postage and insurance cost for mailing the information to you.
  • When writing a letter, always include a self addressed stamped envelope [SASE] with appropriate postage.
  • If your correspondent is in another country, include a self-addressed envelope [SAE] with at least two international reply coupons [bought at the post office].
  • When sending an email, do NOT type all in capital letters.  It's considered as shouting, and is hard to read.
  • Keep a copy of every letter you send.

Think about what you're going to write. Writing a good letter or email isn't always easy. So, here are some general correspondence essentials:

  • CLEAN in appearance. Attractive letters make a favorable first impression. Type every letter, if possible.
  • CORRECT in composition. Make your letter correct in details of grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentencing, and paragraphing. Use a dictionary.
  • CLEAR in expression. Clearly determine what fact(s) you desire to obtain. A letter that is easy to read and easy to answer stimulates a reply. Definite questions usually get definite replies.
  • COURTEOUS in manner. Do not demand. Express your appreciation. Always acknowledge a reply.
  • CONSIDERATE in tone. Never write an 'I' letter. Make your request so interesting that it will be answered out of a desire to help, rather than merely out of a sense of duty.
  • CONCISE in wording. Go directly to the point; say it concisely and quit. Long, rambling requests often end up in the wastebasket, especially with public officials.
  • COMPLETE in thought. Communicate your problem. Give enough background information necessary for the reader to grasp your needs.

REMEMBER: Information from relatives may or may not be accurate. Return to the Cardinal Rule [see "25 Tips to a Happier, Healthier Research" in this section] and use your new data as a guide for further research. Always verify this information with primary source records if possible.


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