Oral History Interview Essay Topics

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?

B. School

  • 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?

C. Work

  • 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?

III. Adulthood

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?

D. Children

  • 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?

Oral History Interview, Questions and Topics

Following is a list of questions that may be used when interviewing an older member of the family.  You can, of course, alter them to suit your particular family (cultural background, etc.).

Some questions to ask:

  1. How old are you now?
  2. When were you born?
  3. Where were you born?
  4. Where was your mother born?
  5. Do you know what her maiden name was?
  6. Do you know where your mother's mother (your grandmother on your mother's side) was born?
  7. How about your mother's father? Where was your grandfather (on your mother's side) born?
  8. What country did your mother's ancestors come from?
  9. What part of the country did your mother's ancestors come from?
  10. Where was your father born?
  11. Do you know where your father's mother (your grandmother on your father's side) was born?
  12. What about your father's father (your grandfather on your father's side)? Do you know where he was born or where he came from?
  13. Do you remember hearing any stories about why your ancestors -- either on your father's or mother's side of the family -- came to America?
  14. What kind of person was your grandmother? What did she look like? How many children did she have?
  15. How many aunts and uncles do you have on your mother's side? On your father's side?
  16. What were some of your grandmother's best qualities? Her worst qualities?
  17. Did your grandmother have some special talents?
  18. How important was your grandmother to you? Do you think she had any effect or influence on you?
  19. Do you know what your grandmother died of?
  20. Where is your grandmother buried?
  21. What kind of work did your grandfather do?
  22. Will you describe your grandfather? What did he look like? What kind of personality did he have? Did he influence you in any way? How?
  23. Are you like him in any way?
  24. Do you know how he died? When did he die? Where is he buried?
  25. Can you tell me a story about either your grandmother or grandfather that would characterize her--perhaps something she did, or the way she reacted to something that happened to her or some member of her family?
  26. How did your grandmother and grandfather meet?
  27. Were there any family heirlooms/property, etc. that have been handed down from generation to generation? What are they? Where are they now?
  28. Can you think of anything else about your grandparents?
  29. Can you tell me about any "black sheep" in the family?
  30. Are there any stories about famous or infamous relatives on either side of the family?
  31. What about your parents? Did they ever tell you how they met and fell in love? Tell me that story.
  32. How and when did your parents decide to get married?
  33. What did your parents do together before they got married? What kinds of places did they go for entertainment, for social life?
  34. When and where was your mother born? Your father?
  35. Where did they grow up?
  36. Did your mother or father ever tell you what their childhood was like?
  37. What did your mother do before she was married? Did she work? What kind of work did she do?
  38. Was your mother previously married before she married your father?
  39. How many children did your mother have?
  40. Can you give me the names of your mother's children?
  41. What year was each of your mother's children born?
  42. Who is the oldest child? The youngest?
  43. Can you describe your mother to me? What did she look like?
  44. If you can remember the way your mother looked, what is she doing now, in your thoughts? How do you picture her now?
  45. Did your mother or father have any birthmarks or scars? Do you know how they got the scars?
  46. Can you tell me a story about your mother--something she did or the way she was--that you remember most?
  47. Did your mother have any hobbies? Was she artistic? Musical? Did she sew or have any other "craft" hobbies? What were her hobbies?
  48. Did your mother work outside of the home? What kind of work did she do?
  49. Was your mother a good cook? What was her favorite meal? What meal did she make that was your favorite? Can you cook as well as your mother?
  50. Did either of your parents read to you when you were small? Did they tell you bedtime stories?
  51. Was either of your parents actively involved in the community?
  52. What skills or talents did you learn from either your mother or father?
  53. What important lesson or lessons did either one teach you?
  54. Tell me about your mother's temper? Did she ever lose her temper that you remember? Why did she lose it? How did it finally end up?
  55. Did your mother or father have a good sense of humor?
  56. Can you remember when your mother or father cried? Why did they cry?
  57. What is the saddest event you can remember?
  58. Do you think you inherited some of your mother's emotional qualities? Which ones?
  59. Tell me how you are like your mother? Your father?
  60. How was your mother's health, generally?
  61. Was she ever severely ill or injured? Tell me about it.
  62. What religion was your mother raised in? Your father?
  63. What do you think was the greatest tragedy your mother or father suffered in their lives?
  64. When did your mother die? Your father?
  65. What cemetery are they buried in?
  66. Did your mother or father ever say how they felt about death or dying? What was their attitude about it?
  67. Tell me about your parents' education (grandparents, etc.). How much education did they have? Where did they go to school? Can you remember if they ever said anything about their experiences at school?
  68. What kinds of dreams of the future did your mother/father have? Did any of their dreams come true?
  69. Did your parents/grandparents live through any wars? Which one? Was your father or grandfather in the military during the war? Did either one ever fight in a battle? Where? Were they ever wounded? Were any of your ancestors killed in battle?
  70. Tell me a story about your father, something that stands out clearly in your mind.
  71. What are you thinking right now? Happy thoughts or sad?
  72. Was your father or grandfather physically strong? Did either of them like to work outdoors? Did either of them have hobbies? What did they teach you, that you can remember?
  73. Did your father or grandfather have lots of friends? Did they like lots of people around?
  74. Describe your surroundings when you were a child? Can you picture the kitchen?
  75. Tell me about your uncles or aunts. What are their names? Can you tell me what years they were born? What do you remember most about them? Does any ONE stand out in your memory? Why?
  76. Who was your favorite cousin? Why?
  77. Are you in touch with any of your aunts, uncles, cousins? Where do they live? How can I get in touch with them?
  78. How many sisters and brothers do you have? What are their names? What years were they born? Did any of them die in childhood? Did any of them die when adults? What did they die of?
  79. Did you have a favorite brother or sister? Why "favorite"?
  80. What was the major news event of your life? How did you feel about it? What influence did it have on you?
  81. What political party did your parents or grandparents belong to? Did they vote?
  82. Do you remember your grandparents' parents (your great-grandparents)? What were their names? How old were they when they died? Where are they buried?
  83. Did your parents or grandparents speak a foreign language? What language?

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