The Vital Genealogy Research Step You May Have Missed

By Lisa Lisson

“No one is interested in my story.”  — “Me? I was just a housewife.” — “Our family did not do anything special.” — “Our family never had much.”

These are some of the responses I received when I began asking my grandmother (at the time in her late 80s) about her life and family history.

So, I got a little sneaky. I pulled out the family photographs and asked her help in identifying the individuals.

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The stories began to flow. Stories about attending school in a one room schoolhouse. Stories about her grandfather, overseer of the plantation. Stories about when she saw her first airplane. Stories about how she met my grandfather. Stories about Christmases at her grandparents’ house. Stories about the family’s music and dancing.

I couldn’t record her stories fast enough.

Over the years before her death at the age of 96, I interviewed my grandmother a number of times. I interviewed her at the Thanksgiving table. I interviewed her over the telephone. I interviewed her in her assisted living apartment. The “interviews” were not necessarily formal. In fact, for the most part, my oral history interviews with her were quite informal. Other times, our interviews were more focused – where I asked about specific people and events. Each time we both left knowing each other a little bit better.

My grandmother’s initial reluctance to talk about herself and her story is not unique. I received many similar responses from older family members I wanted to interview. This is something I hear from other researchers, too.

Despite the initial resistance, all of the interviewees I have contacted over the years really did want to share their stories. Their reluctance came from a fear that no one would be interested in their stories or their family’s history.

But once they got over their initial hesitation?

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Oh my…. the stories they shared!

Do You Use Oral History in Your Genealogy Research?

As genealogists we are remiss if we do not gather our family’s oral history when we can. Oral history will give you facts about your family that cannot be found in formal records. For example, oral history told the story of why a great grandfather did not appear in the 1920 census. The casual researcher would have assumed he died when he was very much alive and working on a road crew in a neighboring state. This was how he, a farmer, earned extra money in the off-season of farming.

Oral history provided the nickname Cas (pronounced with a short “a” as in cat) of a Haley great-great grandfather that later led to confirming his identity as Stephen Caswell Haley and furthering the Haley family two more generations back.

Seeking oral history led to re-connecting with “old” cousins and a subsequent reunion between these cousins….the first in over sixty years.

How Do You Start Collecting Your Family’s Oral History?

One of the easiest ways to start collecting information from your family’s oral history is through the use of photographs. Photographs are conversation starters. Relatives who are reluctant to talk about themselves are often happy to share stories about an event or individual(s) a photograph is depicting. At your next family gathering pull that photo album off the shelf. Pull that box of photographs of the closet.

Pick a photograph and begin by asking your relatives the questions below.

Questions to Begin Uncovering Your Family’s Oral History

  1. Who are the individuals in the photograph? What is their relationship to each other?
  2. Why was the photograph taken? What occasion is the photograph depicting?
  3. Where was the photograph taken?

Tip: Let the conversation flow naturally as you talk with your relatives about your family’s photographs. You will uncover stories and family facts you did not even know to ask about!

As your relatives become more comfortable sharing their family’s history, they will become more comfortable sharing about themselves and their own perspectives of family events, too. I have collected many family stories and facts used in my genealogy research by using this technique.

Perhaps it is cliché to say, “Everyone has a story.” Perhaps this statement became cliché because it is true. Everyone does have a story. Everyone has a unique perspective on the family stories. The benefits of searching out these stories will further your genealogy research beyond just names and dates.

Just ask….and then listen.


Before it is too late.

About Lisa:

Lisa Lisson is a genealogist, blogger and Etsy-preneur who writes about her never-ending pursuit of ancestors, the “how” of genealogy research and the importance of sharing genealogy research with our families. Specializing in North Carolina and southern Virginia research, she also provides genealogical research services to clients. In researching her own family history, Lisa discovered a passion for oral history and its role in genealogy research. When not tracking ancestors through the records, Lisa enjoys spending time with her husband and two “almost” grown children.

You can find Lisa online at, Twitter and Pinterest.

Originally published on Republished with permission.

Editor’s Note: Grandparents and parents are only one source of precious family information. Consider also interviewing aunts and uncles, distant cousins, old family friends and anyone else who may have known your family as well. 

Image: D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville. c1900s

9 thoughts on “The Vital Genealogy Research Step You May Have Missed”

  1. I had a sneaky advantage in the oral history department. My grandfather became blind in his older years so I would casually lead him into conversations and then hit record. He had no idea he was being taped but I don’t regret it as it’s so much better than shorthand notes now that he’s gone! I’m sure he forgives me!

  2. I did a project last year to try and Identify all the people in my Great grandmothers photo album she lived from 1864 to 1947 (Ontario to Saskatchewan). I scanned all the pictures in fairly high quality format, followed by recording what was known about that picture, and than I contacted one of her granddaughters to help label the pictures. I posted them so she could see them online. I later found three other people I have never met or knew of who became of help and they also could see the photos. All the pictures were glued so when I could not lift them off I soaked them off. That offered a few more clues. I learned my grandmother kept in contact with a lot of family over the years. She had connections from Ontario, to British Columbia to California, to New York. I learned a lot about the family history as well a lot about my Great Grandmother.

  3. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to some of my and my wife’s grandparents before they passed. We also have video recordings of both of our parents. But remember, there is more to capturing legacy stories than just talking to your ancestors. Remember, you have photos and stories to pass down to your descendants. Be the one to start recording that information to pass on to your family.

  4. It’s a good idea to have them clarify relationships. My grandfather referred to his “cousin Delia”, but it took me years to figure out how they were cousins. It never occurred to me at the time that it wouldn’t be obvious, and then he was gone when I finally did.

  5. I have to agree that saving oral histories using family photographs is a wonderful way to capture your family legacy for future generations. There is even a website that offers a web site to store this information. They even have a iPhone/iPad/Android app you can use to take a snapshot of the photo in question and record up to three minutes of audio for each photo…all of this at no cost. You can go to to download your free app and start storing the information online so you can share it with others.

  6. By the time I started my family’s history back in the 1960s, my parents and most of their relatives had died. But what had piqued my interest was a family genealogy which referenced her middle name – it took years of research to realize that she (and I for that matter) was looking at a cousin’s line in an adjacent county. Of course this was back in the days before we used computers for genealogical research. I have a small family so I spend much of my time finding collateral lines. But during that time, I have found my 1st cousin’s son & family living about 20 minutes away from me and also several other cousins along the way. But we’rel of the same generation or our children’s, so we don’t have that much information about our history. It makes it extremely difficult when hitting “brick walls’ – I have 2: my Dad’s grandparents, can’t find them anywhere. I’m hoping one of my “cousins’ will find something.

  7. All of my older relatives, save one that I’m aware of on my mother’s side, are now gone. I missed the opportunity to gather the oral histories when I was much younger, not realizing how much it would help me now. I also never went through family photos-for even though my mother had a somewhat large family, and my paternal grandmother also had a large family, we didn’t associate with them. So, I’m on the hunt for relatives to connect with! Definitely, get those histories now, while you have the chance, as even a minute can be too late.

  8. Mary Beth Figgins

    My grandmother wouldn’t allow me to interview her at all even tho she was the one who got me started. She did talk to my niece for a school project however. That’s a good angle also. Using a microphone to record can also be a problem but I really don’t want to miss the stories. I never seem to have paper or the time to start the recorder on my phone when my Mom starts talking so I miss out on so much.

  9. It seems so obvious but I hadn’t thought of using the family photos in this way. In my own family we have only four members left of my parents’ generation (and that’s from a rather large extended family). So often in working on our family tree I have wanted to pick up the phone to ask a question of my Mom or an aunt, but I no longer have that privilege. So I encourage anyone reading this comment to follow Lisa’s advice and do it now (or at least soon).

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