12 Tips for Interviewing Family Part One – The Interview

Interviewing family, in my opinion, is one of the best parts of genealogy. It’s fun and rewarding. You, as the interviewer are like a reporter.  You’ll research your subject, do some background investigation, do the interview and report the results. Please keep in mind that there are two posts here, part one is about how to conduct the interview and part two is about how to record the interview.  Both are equally important, please review both.


  1. Start with your eldest family members first!
  2. Find a quiet place to talk. I can’t emphasize this enough. You’ll want a quiet space without the television, screaming kids, lawn mowers, or other distractions.
  3. You’ll want to record audio and/or video of the interview. However, you’ll also want to take notes!  Many times, your recording will not be clear, someone interrupted the interview, or you ran out of memory on your camera /phone and you didn’t realize it. A host of technical problems can happen, and worst of all the audio was unintelligible.  We’ll talk about the technical side of recording an interview easily, in part two.
  4. Take your family member to a brightly lit space so that photos and documents you’re reviewing can be easily seen and video quality is good (if you’re recording).
  5. Do some homework before your interview. Research where the interviewee(s) lived, when they lived there. Learn about local events or history that took place there. Create a list of questions that inquire about the places in your family member’s life.
  6. Prioritize your questions, in case time or energy runs out before the interview is over.  This is especially important for elderly family. In some cases, you may only get a few minutes with them. Start with your top five most important questions first.
  7. Consider the historical events happening during a person’s life time.  For example, a question might be… “Where were you when John Kennedy was shot?” or “Do you remember your thoughts when you first heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor?”  This can open up a lot of great conversations.
  8. Avoid questions that can be answered with just “yes” or “no” answers.  Use open-ended questions that start with “Tell me about a time…” or “How did you feel when…” or “What was it like growing up in…”. Use the five senses as a lead in your questions (sight, smell, sounds, touch, taste).  What is your favorite desert? (taste)… What were the mornings like growing up in the mountains? (sights and sounds)
  9. Bring printouts from your family tree and ask family members to help fill in the blanks. Doing this will also inspire stories and conversation.
  10. Bring photos and ask to help identify people in them.  Be sure to use pencil and write in the back the photos who are in the images, before you forget. Again, this is so important.
  11. Ask about family heirlooms, photos, memorabilia that they might want to share. There’s always a story behind their favorite family heirloom.
  12. Lastly, if nothing else, keep your camera or smart phone handy at family reunions.  Conversations pop up around the dinner table or out on the back deck.  Go ahead and start recording video, while the stories are being told, even if it’s not in the ideal setting.  Go for it. Get it while you can.

Bonus Tips

DNA Test? Ask (in advance of the interview) if they’ll consider doing a DNA test.  Depending on the research needed, I usually recommend all males do both YDNA and Autosomal DNA (atDNA) tests and that women do at least an Autosomal DNA test.

If you need answers on the maternal line, then a Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test might be appropriate too.  The mtDNA test looks only at the mothers, mother’s, mother (and so on) direct line. It’s always good to test the elders DNA while you can.

Get their permission before you buy the test and then administer the test during your visit, while your there interviewing your family members.  Don’t leave the test behind, it will never get done. Trust me, get them do cheek swab or spit in the tube while you’re there.

Where to do a DNA test?  AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), 23andMe, and MyHeritage are popular testing companies. No matter where you test, read the disclaimers so you understand the privacy policy. Also, be prepared for surprises. You never know what you’ll find using DNA as evidence.

What to ask? Prepare in advance of your interview your goals and questions. Refer to the blog post “Learn Genealogy – Kick Start” for the type of information you need to collect.  Also…

Here are a list of questions and topics you can choose, that may inspire questions to ask:

  • Tell me about your parents? Grandparents?  Where were they born? When?
  • Where you in the military? Were other family members in the military? If so, when?
  • What religion or church did your parents/grandparent belong, growing up?
  • What do you remember about your childhood home? Where was it exactly?
  • Do you have copies of family birth, marriage, death certificates you can share?
  • What were the (pick a season) like growing up?
  • How did you feel when you graduated from school?
  • Did you have a favorite pet growing up?
  • What was your father’s occupation?
  • What was school like?  Where did you go to school?
  • Tell me about a time when life was hard?
  • Tell me about a time when you felt appreciated?
  • Tell me about your greatest achievement?
  • Close your eyes and go back to a favorite time as a child.  What do you see, smell, feel? Where are you?
  • Who was/is your favorite president? Why?
  • What do you remember about the great depression (or insert historical event here)?
  • Did you have a pet growing up?
  • What do you want to talk about?
  • What was your favorite television/radio show?  Do you remember your first television (depending on age of the person)?
  • What is the oldest item you own?

Be careful about subjects causing concern, stress, and prying into family secrets. etc.  If family wants you to know, they’ll tell you.  You can always end your conversation with “Is there anything else you want to talk about?”  If they say no, respect them and move on.

Don’t try to ask all of these questions, you’ll exhaust yourself and others.  But use them as inspiration to create your own list. Once the conversation starts to flow, the ideas and follow up questions will come to mind.
Lastly, try not to have more than one or two spectators while doing the interview.  I prefer to interview people alone.

Most of all, have fun. Enjoy the conversation!  Take notes, and polish them up immediately after the interview before memory fades.

For more on recording the interviews, please see Interviewing Family Part Two – Recording The InterviewDon’t skip this post thinking you won’t need it, because you don’t plan to record the interview. Trust me, at least read the post.

Have you conducted family interviews?  Tell us in the comment section below.

Comments are welcome below.

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Learn Genealogy – Software vs. Online Services

If you’re new to genealogy you may be asking yourself, how do I get started, what do I collect, where do I find this stuff, and how do I keep it all organized?

Today let’s talk about the basic differences between online services and software on your computer.  Both online and software programs will allow you to keep family trees, ancestry data including vital statistics, records found, photos, documents, newspaper articles, and more.  They also have enormous search engines to help you find evidence for your family trees, as wall as serving up hints where were to look.

Online Services

Online services like Ancestry and FamilySearch are great for keeping your data, researching your ancestors, and collaborating with others… all in one place. However, at these services, all your research is online and does not reside on your computer, unless you’re keeping personal document files and/or using software.


With Ancestry.com, you can keep your own family tree and set to be private or public or share it with specific people.

By sharing your tree with specific people, you can set the specific user rights within your tree. For example, you can share your Ancestry tree with anyone by giving them the right to view only, edit, or have full administrative rights (like you, the owner).

Additionally, at Ancestry.com, you can keep private Notes or public Comments. Keeping public Comments, is great for collaborating, sharing your hypothesis and information with others. With Notes, on Ancestry, only you can see the Notes and those you have invited to view your tree. With Comments, if your tree is public, anyone can view your Comments.


FamilySearch.org is a free online service where you can create an account, contribute to the world family tree, research, and share information all in one place. Keep in mind, with FamilySearch, your tree is a collaborative tree world tree where others may update, with good evidence and reasoning, the ancestors or information you put


This can have its advantages and disadvantages. With your FamilySearch account, you can adjust your settings to notify you when changes happen by others on ancestors you’ve marked for notification.  I use this with key ancestors.

The advantages are people can work together on the same line, can share information they discover, and you can find new cousins, when you’re notified of changes (as I have).

The disadvantages are that you may not agree with someone’s changes to the world tree.  But these aren’t really disadvantages at all, if the facts entered are correctly.  The intent is for everyone to provide accurate and proven data.  Look at it as an opportunity for collaboration and conversation.  It might be that the information you entered was incorrect, and someone else has additional evidence you should consider.  Additionally, FamilySearch feels that a collaborative world tree allows for future generations to continue with the research we’ve started.  Keep an open mind when working with the FamilySearch data and you’ll find the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Free vs. Paid Subscriptions

Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org both have free member options. (Free Ancestry Instructions) FamilySearch.org (FamilySearch Registration) will always be free, while Ancestry.com has subscription levels for greater access to record groups that they had purchased. On Ancestry, all information that is uploaded by its users will always remain free to its members. Record groups that Ancestry has purchased, will be available to members through the various subscription levels. These levels currently are U.S. Discovery (U.S. records only), World Explorer (U.S. + International Records), and All Access (All records including their other branded companies).

Take note of online services sister companies. For example, Ancestry now owns many companies that tied together with the Ancestry.com research resources.  This helps with searching your ancestors as Ancestry will search their other brands as well. Examples are, Newspapers.com, Fold3.com (military records), Archives.com, Find-A-Grave, AncestryDNA and more.

Ancestry and FamilySearch are two of the biggest online genealogy services for maintaining your family tree, but there are hundreds of various online resources for researching.

What about family tree software?

Genealogical Software

Software, on the other hand, resides on your computer.  Examples of genealogical software are Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, Brother’s Keeper, and the list goes on and on.

While this is not the software review, I will tell you that I used Family Tree Maker and have for many years. Family Tree Maker (as well as many other fine programs) links with my Ancestry.com account and synchronizes my online family trees.

Additionally, with Family Tree Maker (like many genealogy programs that synchronize with online accounts), you can set specific documents to be private. Thus, documents, photos, notes, and facts you choose, can be set to private and will not upload to the online services. This can be a huge advantage when researching your hypothesis, or you have research that you’re not ready to release to the public.

Additional advantages to having software on your computer is greater flexibility of data management, additional charts, printing and publishing your family history.

Switching Software or Services

Gedcom exports from your service or software allows for the transfer of your data between services or genealogy programs. The Gedcom format was invented years ago and is still used today to export and import your family tree data from one service or software to another.

While this is a great advantage and will save a lot of time (so that you don’t have to retype all your data), one should be mindful that it is possible that not all information will be transferred. Depending on the software and depending on the service some notes or unique fields, may not be transfer.

What do I use?

My primary family tree is contained on Family Tree Maker and Ancestry.com. I also back up regularly to a cloud service.

While I have an account and have uploaded my tree to FamilySearch.org, I primarily use the service for research. This is just a personal choice that I started years ago. All the services have their advantages and unique opportunities.

For online research FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com are excellent places to start. They both have an enormous amount of records online, you’ll want to use them both for research. Even though online research is a great way to start, keep in mind that many records, valuable to genealogists, are still not digitized or available online.  A research trip may be in order.

I recommend using both online services and software on your computer that can synchronize together. Software is affordable and has advantages over online services alone.  Whatever you choose, your primary goal should be to share the most accurate information possible (and its sources).

What should information you collect? 

For information on what kind of information you should seek, see my post called Learn Genealogy – Kick Start.

If you found this helpful…

Comments are welcome at the bottom of the page.  Tell me in the comments section, what software and or online services you use?

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Learn Genealogy – Research Logs & Research Planning

Research Logs (as opposed to Research Notes) are often the most underutilized task in our research tool kit.  I myself am guilty of not documenting every place I’ve looked.  However, Research Logs are a vital part of our research and is a huge time saver.

What is it?  A Research Log is a list of places researchers have looked for evidence and facts to answer a specific research questions, including where and when the research was conducted, whether on location or online. 

Let’s face it, we love genealogy and we spend hours digging around for our ancestors, but how many times do we write down every record group, every book, every cemetery we’ve researched. So how do we keep a good Research Log and keep it handy when we need it?

I keep a Research Log for each ancestor or family group I’m investigating.  If you want a format of what you should have in your Research Log, you can find a free Research Log at FamilySearch.org or many other locations.  Just Google “Research Log for Genealogy” and find a variety of choices to fit your needs.

You should be documenting every place you’ve searched, to answer your research question, and when you did the research.  Why record when we did the research?  Because things change, records may have been added later, history may have been rewritten due to better evidence and conclusions.  Years later, you or your descendants may want to know when you did that research.

Free Research Log from FamilySearch.org

A side note: I have a confession to make… I’m addicted… to software… to saving time… to making my job easier.  I will take EXTRA TIME to learn software that will ultimately save me tons of time. I’m a huge believer in making the software do the work for me. Therefore, learn the basics of spreadsheets.  You don’t have to do math for this, I promise.

So here’s my… “kill-two-birds-with-one-stone” research tip.   Use your Research Planning in combination with your Research Log … by using spreadsheets Especially when researching on location, time always seems to be in short supply.

As long as you need to keep a Research Log… and you need to properly and strategically plan your research, why not do them both in one document.  This is especially helpful when planning for research trips.

Here’s how: Use your favorite spreadsheet (like Excel or Google Sheets) and create a Research Log and Research Plan on one page.  Next, develop a research question for a given ancestor or family group, then create a prioritized plan in your spreadsheet that looks like a Research Log except it doesn’t have the results yet.  However, with advanced planning, it should already have the item… say a book, the author, the location, etc. in the Research Plan/Log in advance of your actual research.  Then when you’re at the library, archive you can follow the prioritized plan and save valuable time, by not having to write down every detail when time is short.  You should do this at home too.

Research Plan and Research Log in One Document

By doing this, you can also embed web links to the source with one click, you’ll have the start of a source citations, and the results you found collectively in one place.

In this example, I used different tabs across the bottom for different counties, I was researching on a trip to Salt Lake City.

You can store the spreadsheet on your computer or use a cloud service like Google Sheets for easy access anywhere.

Keep in mind, that web links and cloud based documents will need access to the internet while researching on location.  Most libraries, archives and, public locations have free access to the internet.  I prefer to use my “Personal Hotspot” found in the Settings on my cell phone, because its private and I find it to be faster than most public wifi services. However, cell phone “Hotspots” are only as good as the cell service at the location.

With Research Logs, the results (positive or negative), the facts found, the source information, are all in one place.  From here you can cut and paste your positive finding and source information into your Research Notes.   All of this is a vital time saver, helps prevent repeating the same research, and will help you to accurately prove your lineage.

I’ve created a free Excel template you can download here. Research Log Template

I hope this helps you as much as it has for me. I was not a fan of keeping Research Logs in the past.  But when you’re out at the library or on a trip, time is always in short supply. Once I started really making good research plans in an effort to save time, I realized that I could keep the results on the same page. Then I started doing all of that on my little Surface Pro (which I absolutely love for genealogy), my research techniques drastically improved.  

Now, not only do I have a detailed research plan, and research log, I have the beginnings of my next step to write my research notes and source citations. Many times, if I write the positive findings clearly in my research log, I simply cut and paste them into my research notes.

Make sure you reference that you have a research log in your research notes, so you can continue on for the next trip.

Lastly, I file them just like I do for my research notes… SURNAME, First Name and Research Log.  I preface also preface it with a 2 so that that file rises to 2nd place in that person’s electronic folder.

Another tip: I’ve started using Google Drive, Docs and Sheets so that I can access these documents on any device. That may or may not be an option for you, but I’ve found the Google Docs and Google Sheets to be the most reliable of the cloud based document sharing.  

Sometimes, before a big trip to say… Salt Lake City… I’ll upload my family files to Google Docs so I can access and edit them from anywhere on any device (as long as you have your login).

If you found this helpful…

Comments are welcome at the bottom of the page.  How do you use research logs?

Follow this blog at the link above.

Subscribe to the NCAncestry YouTube Channel.

Subscribe to the Learn Genealogy YouTube Channel.

Ruth Faison Shaw, the Originator of Finger Painting

Here’s a story produced by WRAL-TV about a Duplin County native, Ruth Faison Shaw… the originator of finger painting.

She is buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, NC.  More about Oakdale Cemetery and Ruth Faison Shaw can also be found in this video I produced about Oakdale Cemetery for the NC Ancestry YouTube channel.

Learn Genealogy – Easy-Breezy Source Citations

Here’s a great way to remember how to write good quality source citations without stress.

If you want just get the information down without the formality of a proper source citation, think of the Five “W’s” of journalism… Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.  But I’ve got my own take on this, to help remember everything easily. I call it the Six W’s and How… Genealogy Source Citations Will Work for You!  It’s a play on words, get it?

Six W’s and How Genealogy Source Citations Will Work for You!

Ready? Here it is…  Who, What , Where, When and When, Why and How.  That’s right, two When’s!  Say that ten times and you’ll have it.  Who, What , Where, When and When, Why and How.  It’s a tongue twister, but you’ll remember it. Learn this technique and you’ll have the details of the source citations professionals use.

  • Who – (Who created this item, statement, book, document, photo, etc.? It might be a probate court, the state or federal government, a testimonial by a person, county recorder’s office, or an author of a book. Who created it?
  • What – (What is it? Description or title, in detail, of the document, object, photo, testimonial, and publisher information! )
  • Where – (Where did you find it? Archive, library, person’s full name, etc.) Be very specific so that a stranger can retrace your steps. This is a physical address, email, online repository with address. It could be all of the following…  place, room, shelf, book, chapter, page, paragraph and line… if that’s what it takes for an stranger to find it again.

A note about web addresses:  Use them, BUT ALSO give all information about it’s location again in written form, so that one can find it without a web address. This might be an online archive, with record group, section, image number, line number and persons name in the document or all of the above.  Over time, websites die or change and if you have a web address, it will be useless a few years from now.  We’ll talk more about that in other lessons.

  • When and When – (When this item was created? and When you located it?)  Make sense?  Two When’s!
  • Why – (Why does this matter, as it relates to your target question or ancestor?) Perhaps this evidence is the item that ties two brothers together, or proves someone bought some land, or directly or indirectly answers the question you’ve been researching.
  • How – (How can you access this again if needed? Is it online, only available at the archives, in grandma’s possession?)  You might have covered this in the “Where” question above, but give it some thought.  You may have found it in grandma’s attic, but brought it home and filed it in your own archives.  You’ll need to document both, where you found it and how can you find it again? Especially, if it’s location has changed.

You’ll need to do this exercise for everything you find. If you do, you’re well on your way to writing real proper “Elizabeth Shown Mills style” source citations like she teaches in her book Evidence Explained and on her website EvidenceExplained.com.  She and her methods are the gold standard of genealogical source citations.  These Six W’s and How… are an early stepping stone to understanding her artful source citation methods.

In the interest of full disclosure, this link for Mills book is an affiliate marketing link that helps support this website. However, using this link will not cost you anymore.  I will never-ever recommend a book I don’t believe in.  Please know that your trust in me is worth more than a small commission.  However, should you use this link, you’ll help support my efforts to bring quality genealogy education to you and others.  Thanks for your support.

At the end of the day, can anyone find your source again?  If so, kudos!  You’ve got this! I’m curious, please answer the poll below.

Comments are welcome below.

Following this blog at the link above.

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