42 Genealogical Questions to Ask Family Members Today

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of Mr. Jack Lowe of Marsh Harbour.

Not long after I launched this blog, I received a note from Mr. Lowe’s daughter, Beth, saying that her Dad wanted to speak with me about Abaco history.

Preserving your family history: Questions to ask your parents and grandparents.

Mr. Jack Lowe (Photo: Beth Lowe Sawyer)

Mr. Lowe and I chatted a few times. He was incredibly generous in sharing his memories of growing up in Abaco. And he very graciously sent me a copy of his book, My Life – The Abaco Boy Story, which provides a vivid and fascinating account of his younger years, and of Abaco life during the early 20th century.

In conducting research for this blog and for other projects, I’ve referred to Mr. Lowe’s book many times. And each time I do, I marvel at what a wonderful gift he has given his children, grandchildren and all of us who are interested in the history of Abaco and the cays.

To Beth, Bernice and all of Mr. Lowe’s family, Tom and I send our love and condolences. We are so very sorry for your loss. May you find peace and healing during this time of sorrow.

To everyone else, I say simply this. If you’re fortunate enough to still have elderly relatives living, please, please record their stories and memories.

So many people I meet tell me how much they regret not having done this. In some cases, their loved ones passed unexpectedly and there was no time. Others say they didn’t develop an interest in family histories until later in life, at which point, their elders were gone. “When Daddy used to tell me about his life,” one of my cousins said, “I’d brush him aside. I didn’t want to sit and listen. Now, I’d give anything to have those stories.”

Even if ultimately, you’re never bitten by the genealogy bug, it’s likely that one of your children, or a niece, nephew or other relative will be. Taking the time now to record answers to their future genealogical questions will save them time, frustration and perhaps disappointment in years to come.

Preserving your family history -- how to conduct a genealogical interview.

My grandparents, Lionel Albury and Lurey (Curry) Albury, with their oldest child, my Uncle Jeff, circa 1946.

How you record family stories is a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer taking handwritten or typed notes. If you’re comfortable shooting video — and your interview subject isn’t camera shy — that’s even better.

In the years before my grandmother passed away, I used a simple, hand-held cassette recorder to document our talks and her stories. (I don’t recommend this method, however, since cassette tapes degrade far more quickly than you think. I had to scramble to digitize my recordings to save the audio.) Now, fortunately, audio recording is as simple as tapping a button on your smart phone.

That being said, when I interview people these days, I prefer using a Livescribe Echo pen. It’s not inexpensive, but it offers several advantages. First, it’s small and unobtrusive, which was always an issue with my grandmother — the cassette recorder made her self-conscious.

Preserving your family history - how to conduct a genealogical interview.

My grandmother and me, circa 1995.

Second, because the pen records your conversation, it allows you to really listen and be present in the interview, rather than rushing to scribble down every word. (Do make some notes, however, to trigger your memory on the off chance that technology fails you – or, as has happened to me occasionally, you fail the technology by forgetting to switch it on.)

With the Echo pen, you can go back to your written notes, tap on any word, and the pen will take you to that exact spot in the audio.

And finally, downloading both the audio recording and your written notes from the pen to your computer is super easy. (For the record, aside from being a satisfied repeat customer, I’m not affiliated in any way with Livescribe.)

In the end, it doesn’t matter as much how you record your family history, as it does that you just do it.

When interviewing my grandmother, I sometimes struggled with what to ask. When I’d ask her general questions about her life, she’d insist it hadn’t been terribly eventful, that her stories wouldn’t be interesting. Eventually, after a period of time, her self-consciousness would recede and her stories flowed. But my recordings of those conversations include more than a few extended periods where they only sound is the creaking of my grandmother’s rocking chair as I figured out where next to take the conversation.

In recent years, I’ve come across some great sources of genealogical interview questions (thanks, Pinterest!), which I’ve distilled into the list below.

While some of these questions are basic and instinctive, others are creative and evocative. I only wish I’d had them back when my grandmother was alive.

GENEALOGICAL INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

  1. What is your full name?
  2. Do you know why your parents chose this name?
  3. Do you have a nickname?
  4. Where and when were you born?
  5. How and why did your family come to live there? Where were they from originally?
  6. What do you know about the history of your surname?
  7. What is your earliest childhood memory?
  8. Who are the oldest relatives you remember as a child?
  9. Where was your childhood home and what was it like?
  10. What are the full names of your parents and siblings, and what are/were they like?
  11. Did you have a favourite game or toy as a child?
  12. What did you do for fun when you were younger?
  13. Did you have pets? What kind(s) and what were their names?
  14. What was your religion growing up? What church, if any, did you attend?
  15. What was a typical day like when you were a child?
  16. Where did you go to school? Did you go to high school? College?
  17. Did you like school?
  18. What kind of clothing and hairstyles did you wear?
  19. Who did you most admire as a child and why?
  20. What were your favorite songs and music?
  21. Do/did you play an instrument?
  22. Who were your friends when you were growing up?
  23. What world events most impacted your life when you were growing up? Was your family personally affected by any of them?
  24. How did your family celebrate holidays, birthdays, Christmas, etc.?
  25. Did you have any special family traditions?
  26. How is the world today different from what it was like when you were a child?
  27. What family stories did your parents or grandparents share with you?
  28. Were there any famous or infamous relatives in your family?
  29. Any family scandals or secrets?
  30. Are there any special photos, Bibles or other heirlooms that were passed down in your family?
  31. What were the most valuable lessons you learned from your parents?
  32. What is your spouse’s full name?
  33. How and where did the two of you meet?
  34. What memories stand out about your courtship? What sorts of things did you do on dates?
  35. Where and when did you get married? What memories from your wedding day stand out the most?
  36. What is/was your spouse like? What do/did you admire most about him/her?
  37. How and why did you choose your children’s names?
  38. What sorts of things did your family enjoy doing together?
  39. What was your profession and how did you choose it?
  40. If you could have had any other profession, what would it have been and why?
  41. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  42. What else would you like your descendants to know about you and your life?

Have you conducted any genealogical interviews? Are there other questions or tips you’d add? Please feel free to share them in the comments section below.

4 thoughts on “42 Genealogical Questions to Ask Family Members Today

  1. I have a book entitled, “A Father’s Legacy” which has questions like this at the top of the page and blank lines to be filled in by the father. reminds me not to procrastinate, and get it finished, while I can. And before, my memory lets some of the things escape! I think there is also one entitled “A Mother’s Legacy!” I think maybe hospice has a list of questions that you can ask your parents and grandparents.

  2. Terrific post, Amanda. I am saving your questions for later use, and I am going to research your Livescribe Echo pen. Thank you.

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