The following outline can be used to structure a family oral history interview and contains examples of specific questions.
I. Early Childhood and Family Background
A. Parents and Family
- When and where were you born?
- Tell me about your parents or your family background
- Where was your family originally from?
- What did your parents do for a living? Did you contribute to the family income or help parents in their work in any way?
- What was your parents' religious background? How was religion observed in your home?
- What were your parents' political beliefs? What political organizations were they involved in?
- What other relatives did you have contact with growing up?
- What do you remember about your grandparents?
- What stories did you hear about earlier ancestors whom you never knew?
- How many children were in the family, and where were you in the line-up?
- Describe what your siblings were like. Who were you closest to?
- Describe the house you grew up in. Describe your room.
- What were your family's economic circumstances? Do you remember any times when money was tight? Do you remember having to do without things you wanted or needed?
- What were your duties around the house as a child? What were the other children's duties? How did duties break down by gender?
- When did you learn to cook and who taught you? Were there any special family foods or recipes? Do you still make any traditional family foods?
- What activities did the family do together?
- What did you do on Christmas? Thanksgiving? Birthdays? Other holidays?
B. Community You Grew Up In
- Describe the community you grew up in.
- Describe your neighborhood.
- Where did you shop? How far away were these shops and how did you get there?
- What's the largest town or city you remember visiting when you were young? Can you describe your impressions of it?
C. Early Schooling
- What was school like for you? What did you like about it? What was hard about it for you?
- Who were your friends at school?
- Who were your favorite teachers?
- Do you remember teasing or bullying of you or anyone else?
D. Friends and Interests
- What did you do in your spare time?
- Who were your friends and what did you do when you got together?
- Did you have any hobbies?
- Favorite stories? Favorite games or make-believe? Favorite toys?
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
II. Teenage Years
A. Changes in Family
- How did your relationship with your parents change when you became a teenager?
- If you had conflict with them, what was it over?
- Did you have chores around the house? What were they?
- What were your favorite subjects? Particular interests?
- What were your least favorite subjects?
- Did you have any memorable teachers? Describe their teaching style. How did they influence you?
- Was it okay for girls to be smart at your school?
- What were the different groups at your school? Which did you belong to? How do you think you were perceived by others?
- Were you involved in any extracurricular activities? What were they?
- What were your plans when you finished school? Education? Work?
- What did your parents think of your plans? What did your friends think? What did your friends plan to do?
- Did the boys and girls in the family have different plans/expectations?
- Did you have jobs during your teenage years? Doing what?
- Did you contribute to the family income? If not, how did you spend your money?
D. Social Life and Outside Interests
- Who were your friends? What did you do together? What individuals did you spend the most time with during this period?
- Was your group of friends single-sex, or did it include both boys and girls?
- At what age did you begin dating? What kinds of activities did you do on dates? Describe your first date.
- What was your parents' advice/rules related to dating/contact with opposite sex? Did they give you a "birds and bees" lecture? Did you get teaching on this in church or school? What was it?
- What were your peer group's norms with regard to dating and relationships with the opposite sex?
- What were your hobbies/interests? What books did you read? What music did you listen to? What sports did you play? What crafts did you participate in?
A. Further Education
B. Work and Career
C. Marriage or Formation of Significant Relationships
- When and where did you meet? What drew you to him/her?
- When and how did you decide to move in together and/or marry?
- What was originally the most difficult for you about being married/being in a relationship? What was most satisfying?
- What advice would you give to someone today who was contemplating a serious relationship?
- Describe the birth of your children.
- What were they each like when they were young? How have they changed or not changed?
- What were their relationships with each other and with you like when they were young? Now?
- What activities did the family do together?
- What family traditions did you try to establish?
- Does your family have any heirlooms or objects of sentimental value? What is their origin, and how have they been passed down?
- What was most satisfying to you about raising children? What was most difficult?
- What values did you try to raise your children with? How did you go about doing that?
- What forms of discipline did you use and why?
E. Ongoing interests and hobbies
IV. Overview and Evaluation
- What has provided you the greatest satisfaction in life?
- How would you say the world has changed since you were young?
Also, ask about historically significant events the family member lived through:
- Was your family affected by the Depression?
- Did you or anyone close to you serve in a war? What do you remember of that experience?
- Did you support or oppose the war in Vietnam? How did you express your political opinions?
- Did you participate in, or do you have any memories of any of the movements that came out of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, such as the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, or the gay liberation movement?
- If the family member belongs to a group that has traditionally been discriminated against: what were you told, both positive and negative, about your group inside your family? Outside? Did you experience discrimination? Who were your role models?
- If the family member is an immigrant or the child/grandchild of immigrants: what do you know of the country you or they came from? Why did you or they immigrate? How did you or they immigrate? What were some of your or their experiences and difficulties of beginning a life in a new country?
- Do you remember your first contact with such significant inventions as radio, television, or a computer? When did your family first buy these items?
See also Season 2: Writing a Family History.
Written Personal Histories
A full-length autobiography; moving from birth to the present. It might be hundred pages or more. Most folks write their life stories in this manner.
A Non-Chronological Personal History
You don't have to start at birth. Start anywhere you like. You might start with the middle of your life and write in either direction.
Just write what comes to mind whenever you pick up your pen or computer. You could, for example, write about people you have met that have had a major influenced on you and why. Here you might have a mixture of personal experiences and opinions about life in general or events in particular.
We all have had incidents in life that made us laugh or brought sadness. Gather them up for your reader; they don’t necessarily have to be in any order. Here is a sample of chapters from one such autobiography: “My First Kiss,” “The Roasted Cat,” “Truant From Prayer,” “Little Alvah Goes to Jail,” “Hot Squash,” “Rotten Eggs in Sunday School,” “Father Gets Some Teeth,” “Firecrackers in Church." I think you get the idea.
People You Have Known
This could be a book about the people you’ve know over the years and how they influenced your life. There have been many people who have sacrificed for you. Your parents have paid a tremendous price in resources and time to get you where you are today. You have had friends who may have stuck with you in very difficult times. You’ve also probably had people who have encouraged you to be your best self. Here you can talk about your life in relation to how others effected it.
Effects of Family
For example, are your religious feelings the result of an ancestor? In addition, see if you can figure out what attributes or attitudes they had that you now have. And what attributes or attitudes you don’t have that they had. And even more thought provoking, what effects did your second great grandfather have on you? What did he do a hundred and fifty years ago that is affecting you today? I think this is really worth pondering.
One Aspect Only
Maybe you’ll want to write about only one aspect of your life, such as your war experiences, religious conversion, talents, hobbies, athletic achievements, or awards you may have earned.
Talk about the major turning points in your life, such as, marriage, death of loved ones, birth of children, education, occupations, retirement, accidents, answered prayers, or divorce. Again, you may write in any order you want.
Events in the World
You can tell us how events in the world, your country, your state, and your community affected you. For example, you could write about events, such as wars, government decisions, natural disasters in your area and in other parts of the world. Specifically, you can tell us how you were effect by events of September 11, 2001. You may have to do some research on the events you want to write about to get exact details if you have forgotten them.
You can talk about the effects of money, race, hereditary, migration, relatives, etc on your family. Give examples of each to illustrate your point.
Are you cautious, adventurous, thrifty, spendthrift, frail, or in good health? Identify personal qualities and give examples.
Here you can talk about the surprises in life. We are all subject to chance. Tell about accidents, running into old friends, winning a prize, etc.
Write topic-related essays on subjects like politics, religion, the environment, favorite author, scriptures, music, etc. Use experiences in your life to illustrate your conclusions about them. If you are thinking of creating a full-length personal history, you might consider including these personal essays. If, for example, you are writing about the death of a loved one, you could include an essay explaining your views about death. Click here for a list of possible topics to write about.
Tell of your struggles against adversities such as poverty, a physical handicap, lack of education, abuse, and etc. You don’t want to present yourself as not having any problems in your life to your decendents. If it appears that your life was without struggles, they may wonder what is wrong with you or themselves.
A Couple Personal History
Write a personal history from the standpoint of two people experiencing it together. Tell us how the couple was affected collectively not individually. When writing about your married life, for example, you might tell how your reactions affected the reactions of your spouse. You might tell how you both work together to create a business or worked together in some community improvement project. You could also focus on the natural interactions that come with raising children.
Personal History of a Family
Create a history about how a family developed over the years. You can describe how your family worked together to overcome poverty, loss of a parent, economic setbacks, immigration to a new country, war, etc. This can be about your own family or that of your parents, grand parents, etc. Here you're writing the history of the interactions of an entire family.
Questions and Answers
Instead of writing a regular autobiography, pick the questions from Creating a Personal History in this wiki. Write down the ones you want to address; putting your answer under them.
Subjects For a Topical Personal History
The following are topics that you might want to comment on. These items will probably reveal more about you to your descendants that any other effort you'll make. Takes notes before you write. Put together an outline of what you'll cover on each of the items you want to touch on. Then write. Enjoy the ride for you'll feel like a spectator as the words come from the end of your pen.
- What makes me happy?
- What makes me sad?
- Relationships - husband and wife
- Sadness and Sorrow
- What afflictions have taught you
- Do I think of myself as having good looks?
- What I have you learn from others?
- What are my personal fears?
- What are my greatest strengths?
- Education of children
- Education of adults
- What are my passions?
- What is a waste of time?
- How to overcome challenges
- Who is in control of your destiny?
- How we should speak to each other?
- Growing old
- Eating habits/culinary preference
- Physical appearance
- Favorite authors
- Favorite scriptures
- Economic status
- Armed Forces
- The Environment
- Listening to our conscience
- Seasons of the year
- Great people in your life
- Do ends justify the means?
- Raising children
- Family dynamics
- Relationships with grown children
- Collaborating efforts with others
- Self control
- Experiences related to employment
- Experiences related to retirement
- Natural disasters
- Skills and talents
- Your disabilities and challenges.
- Your financial struggles and achievement.
- Situation in which you may have felt defeated or failed.
Non-Written Personal Histories
Write or Record Your History?
Consider writing your personal history rather than recording it. Not that recording is any less valuable, but the act of writing has many benefits. Consider these items before deciding on whether to write or record your personal history.
Oral or Video Histories
Record your personal history either on a voice recorder or camcorder. Click here for instruction on how to create oral histories.
Other People’s Recollections
Interview family members and friends to get their recollections and memories of you. It should be interesting to learn what people think of you. You might need to develop some thick skin.
Make a list of the main events in your life. You can use the questions on Creating A Personal History to suggest events to put on your time line. Put the events with the date on the left side of the page and with a short explanation on the right side. It may not be literature, but it is a history.
Collection of Photographs
Place your photographs on one side of the page and an explanation on the opposite side. Learn about preserving at Preserving Photographs and Documents If you don’t have many photographs and you want to show what your home town looked like, for example, you may have to get photos from your local historical society or home town library. In addition, consider saving them to a DVD with narration to go along with them.
Create scrapbooks that display photographs and various memorabilia. Here you can show your artistic abilities and other items that tell something about you. And as mentioned, consider saving these images on a DVD also.
Compile personal drawings, lists, charts, diagrams, collections, art, crafts and evidence of hobbies. You can put some of these things on a DVD too.
Letters and Journals
Gather together all letters and journals, saving them as you would photographs. Put these items on a DVD as well.
Don't Disappoint Your Descendants
Again, writing your life story is a very personal matter. Don’t feel guilty if you do not want to write a full-fledged autobiography. These personal histories can be difficult to write and take a long time. In fact, this may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But keep in mind who you are doing this for. Here is the reason why Montaigne, the really first person to write a personal history, wrote his essays:
“ . . .to the end, that losing me (which they are likely to do ere long), they may therein find some lineaments of my conditions and humours, and by that meanes reserve more whole, and more lively foster the knowledge and acquaintance they have had of me.”
Don’t disappoint your descendents.
What to do with the genealogy and family history I collected