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Questions & Research

Pass stories from generation to
generation through an oral
history interview

What Do You Need to Know Before Your Interview?

The #1 most important thing to know is how to ask open, unbiased questions. Your questions should be simple and straightforward, and they shouldn't give away your opinion or what you already know. Ask every question as if you've never heard the answer, even if you have.

The goal is to make it easy for the person you're interviewing to give honest and complete answers. Let the person you're interviewing decide what to say — don't push anyone to confirm your ideas or answer the way you want them to.

A biased, or "leading" question gives away your opinion and might make the person you're interviewing try to give the answer you want instead of the whole truth. When you ask a "leading" question, you diminish the value of your oral history because no one can tell if the answers were just polite confirmations of what you wanted to hear.

Research is an important step in preparing for an oral history project. Through research, you identify questions you hope to answer about the people you’re interviewing, as well as topics likely to be important to them. You'll also learn to recognize important names or topics that come up in your interview, so you can ask informed follow-up questions.

Look for information on

  • Important dates — births, marriages, deaths

  • Where people lived — towns, counties, states, countries

  • Schools attended

  • What jobs people had

In Your Family Archive
If you already have a family archive, start there. Review family trees, photographs and documents such as marriage licenses, birth certificates, diplomas and letters. You can start to put together some basic information about the people you'll be interviewing, including the dates of major events in their lives and maybe the kinds of work they did and other information.

Outside Resources
Depending on your family's history, there may be a local historical society or library with records pertaining to your family. Check with libraries and museums in areas where your family lived for many years. Your family may be part of a church or ethnic group that keeps records, too. Ask around.

If someone in your family was well-known, either locally or nationally, ask your local library to help you search newspapers for articles about your family. Don't forget to look for articles about schools and employers from relevant time periods.

It's also a good idea to do a little research about major events in history during the lifetime of the person you want to interview. Think about what was happening in their lives and how old they were when each event took place. Think about wars, politics, popular movies or music, natural events and moments of great national pride. Your local library should be able to help direct you to books and high quality internet sources.

Think locally, as well as nationally. Find out about the major events in the hometown or home state of the people you're interviewing that may have affected their lives directly.

Once you've done a little research and have a few ideas about what you want to learn from your interview, you can begin to write questions about the topics that interest you. Keep in mind that questions should be simple and straightforward, and that they should allow for as many answers as possible.

Don't forget that you can ask questions about cultural topics — food, entertainment, sports, religion — as well as life events.

Some Tips for Writing Great Questions

  • It's often best to start a question with, "What do you remember about...?" or "What was it like when...?"

  • Avoid questions that start with "Isn't it true that...?" or "Don't you think that...?"

  • Try not to ask any question that ends with, "right?"

  • Keep your questions general at first. For example, don't say, "Wasn't your school really underfunded and overcrowded?" Instead say, "What do you remember about your school?"

  • Follow-up questions can be more specific. You can ask for clarification or more details. You can ask the person you're interviewing to tell you a story about a particular time in their life. But don't suggest answers in your questions.

download questions

A Few Sample Questions


  • Where did you live when you were a kid — what town, state, country? What was it like?

  • What were your parents’ names? When and where were they born? What were they like?

  • Do you (did you) have siblings? Can you tell a story about one of your siblings during childhood?

  • Where did you go to elementary school? What do you remember best?

  • What was your childhood home like?

Family History

  • What do you know about your family from before you were born?

  • Where did your family come from before they were in the U.S.? What do you know about the family's trip to America?

  • Are there any family stories or major family events that you'd like to talk about?

Teen Years

  • Where did you go to high school? What do you remember most about high school?

  • Did you attend college/university or a trade school? What school and what years were you there? What are your memories from that time?

  • When did you leave home for the first time? What are your memories about moving away from home and the first place you lived away from your family?

Love & Marriage

  • What was your wedding like

  • Can you talk a little about married life?

  • Were you ever widowed or divorced? What happened? What are your memories about that today?

Starting Your Own Family

  • When were your children born and what were their names?

  • Where did your children go to school? Are there any stories or events that stand out in your mind from their school years?

  • Were there any big events or stories from when your kids were growing up that you'd like to talk about? Did anybody ever get hurt or sick? Did anybody ever meet somebody famous or go somewhere special during those years?


  • What was your first job? What was it like?

  • What jobs have you had over the years?

  • What was your most vivid memory from your working years — either a project you worked on or just something funny that happened one day that you always remember?

Historical Events (just a few samples from major events of the last century)

  • Where were you on September 11, 2001? How did you hear about the attacks? What did you think? How did you feel?

  • When did you first look at something on the Internet or World Wide Web? What do you remember thinking at the time?

  • During the late 1980s, the U.S.S.R. collapsed and the Berlin Wall fell. What do you remember?

  • What are your memories from the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s eventual resignation from the Presidency?

  • Did the women's movement affect your life during the 1970s? What changes have you seen in the way men and women act toward each other?

  • What are your memories of the Vietnam War?

  • Did you watch the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 on TV? What do you remember about it best? What did you think?

  • Where were you when President Kennedy was shot? What did you think and feel that day?

  • When did your family first get a television? Why then? What do you remember best?

  • The 1950s stereotype is the suburban family with the father who commutes to the city and the mother who stays home. How did your life in the 1950s compare to those stereotypes?

  • Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in 1947. Was that something you paid attention to at the time? What did you think?

  • Do you remember hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941? What were people saying? What were your thoughts and feelings about the U.S. joining the war?

  • What do you remember about the Great Depression? Was your family affected by job shortages or the "dust bowl" that drove many farm workers to look for new work around the country? Was money tight for your family? What kinds of things did your family do when money was tight?

Photographs, important documents and various objects can bring back strong memories. You can ask about pictures or things from various times along with other questions about the same era, or you can save all your pictures and things for the end of your interview. Either way, continue to ask open-ended and unbiased questions.

You might also ask the people you interview if they have any photographs or other family documents and heirlooms that they'd like to share with you, either for you to borrow or to add to your permanent Family Archive.

Collecting Materials
When accepting materials, make sure to get as much information as possible. Make note of where your materials came from and who gave them to you, as well as the date you got them. For photographs, ask where it was taken and the names of everyone pictured. For objects, such as toys, tools, pieces of art or household objects, ask who bought them originally, where they bought them, who has owned them, what is known about who made them and where they've been kept.

Be sure to handle objects with great care.

Borrowing and Returning Materials
Be extra careful with any materials you borrow and keep any promises you make about when and how you will return items. If you'd like to add a record of the items you’ve borrowed to your own family archive, be sure to ask permission. Photographs, photocopies and scans are all great ways to preserve older artifacts. Sometimes photocopies and scans can actually make faded handwriting or printing easier to read.

Sending family materials by mail or private carrier can be worrying, but if you pack carefully it can be a good option. When shipping through the U.S. Postal Service, choose the fastest route (Priority or Express Mail) and opt for a service like Delivery Confirmation so that your package receives a tracking number. Express services such as FedEx and UPS are also good options to consider.

Make sure that materials are well packaged. Documents and photos should be placed in protective sleeves or folders and then sandwiched between cardboard or another stiff material before final packaging. Mark packages with appropriate labels, such as "fragile" or "do not bend."

The Art of Interviewing