5 Tips for Gathering Family Stories

Family stories are an integral part of our family history. Without stories, our ancestors are just names on paper. Looking ahead, if we don’t record our own stories, we will end up the same way. Here are 5 easy tips for gathering your family stories (and how to get better stories out of the people you talk with).

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 38

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 14 minutes.


1. It doesn’t have to be a formal interview

When we think of recording stories, we sometimes think of a traditional oral interview, with two people sitting down in front of a voice recorder or video camera, complete with a list of questions prepared ahead of time. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Allow yourself to be open to family stories wherever (and whenever) you are. It can be as simple as a conversation.

2. Ask open-ended questions

Try to avoid questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Many people won’t elaborate and it can be difficult to pull more of the story out. When you ask too many yes/no questions, it can go from being a conversation to feeling like an interrogation.

Instead of asking, “Did you hang up stockings on Christmas Eve when you were a child?” ask “What did your family do on Christmas Eve?” This makes it more of a “fill in the blank” question.

3. Start broadly, then narrow down

It’s easier to start with a broad topic and narrow it down than to start with something specific and work out to the bigger picture. Starting broadly also gives you the advantage of picking out things to follow-up on, which leads to tip #4…

4. Listen

This is the most important tip of all. Truly listen to the other person. You’re having a conversation, and people tend to respond better when they realize that the other person is actually engaged and listening.

You probably have lots of questions you want to ask, but don’t just bide your time while the other person is talking, waiting for your chance to ask the next question. Listen to what the person is saying. You’ll pick up on better things to ask about as follow-up questions. (They might even be better than what you originally had planned!)

5. Don’t stress about preservation

This is a surprising tip, especially coming from someone with a library degree. However, sometimes we get so wrapped up in planning how we’re going to preserve something that we never get around to actually recording it. (It’s a prime example of perfectionism harming our family history.) Focus on recording the story first; then you can worry about preserving it.

You can't preserve a family story that you haven't recorded. Click to Tweet

Use whatever method is handy in the situation. It could be the voice recorder or the camera on your smartphone, a journaling/memory app, or good ol’ pen and paper. Record it first; then tackle preservation.

Bonus Tip: You don’t need to interview someone to record family stories. Record the family stories that you know. A great place to start is with a family photo. Pick one up and tell about a memory that the photo brings to mind.

Family stories are so important. We need to remember that we are a part of our own family history and record our stories.


Posted: December 5, 2019.

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