My aging father is very interested in family history. The difficulty is he is interested in finding information about his distant relatives but not interested in telling about himself or his close relatives. What can I do to have him see the importance of sharing his knowledge, before it too goes?

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    I had this problem once- someone wanted to know about distant kin yet provide nothing on more recent kin or themselves. I finally issued an ultimatum... I would provide one fact on distant kin for every fact they provided on themselves, their parents or their siblings. They finally saw that as they provided more I was able to find more on the distant kinships. Commented Dec 3, 2012 at 5:26

8 Answers 8


I would say 'participation', especially if there are some definite mysteries. It doesn't matter whether he has used a computer (although age should not be a barrier to anyone wanting to learn how to use one), but to help with suggesting reasons for evidence you may have found, or simply seeing print-outs of a tree or photographs that have been shared with you, may pique his attention. It's only a small step from there to talking about an individual, or a previous home, or some event...

Just make sure you write everything down as quickly as you can, and date it. You'll be thankful of that one day :-)


I have had similar issues with some of my relatives. Some I have videotaped in a StoryCorp format. The StoryCorp format helped with some of them. Ie they wouldn't 'perform on camera' but they understood the motives of StoryCorp and were OK with it because of that.

However some still resisted because it reminds them of their mortality (they explicitly told me this). However I did find many still like to talk and pass on the stories - just not in a 'recorded interview' format. A couple agreed I could unobtrusively audio record them (ie leave my iphone turned on in my lap - no video but it caught the audio) when we where just talking. They agreed I could record as long as I didn't remind them I was recording.

As others have mentioned, I also found it's best to only do a little at a time. It's not 'a project' - it's just me having my phone on when they were reminiscing.

I also found it best to personalize it. "I" want to hear them tell the story - not 'we are recording this for when you are gone'.

Another thing I found useful was having several older relatives together. They build off each other and the collective memory is greater and the resistance to talk is less.

I still have a couple holdouts myself so I am interested in the other answers people have found to work.

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    +1 especially for the idea of gathering several family members around to help them feed off each other and not make it so much of an awkward interview-like environment.
    – fbrereto
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 0:53

I agree about the "secrets" issue. I've run into that, myself. Some of the stories have been horrendous.

I've had luck with a few tactics, when someone simply won't share his or her immediate family tree and stories:

1. Look for inherited (or just plain old) items that he owns. Ask him to tell you the story of them. They're certain to open a few doors when he mentions names, who owned the object before, what that person was like, and so on.

I've sometimes hidden a voice recorder (turned on & recording) in my purse, so I can keep the whole thing conversational, without obviously taking notes and still not miss anything important. (If you're not sure that he's speaking loudly enough to be recorded, repeat the important things. Names and locations are always more important than dates. As long as you know the region to look in, you can usually find the dates. Vice versa isn't so easy.)

2. Find some old photos -- really old photos -- of your family, and ask him if he can identify them. Ask him if he recognizes anything (people, objects, locations) in the photos. Get stories. (Take a pencil to write names & places & approximate dates on the back of each photo.)

3. Create a family tree with what you do know, and -- especially if it's an attractive tree, like a fan-style tree -- show it to him. Sometimes, seeing what you do know can give the person more confidence, along the lines of (a) you can help him find the distant relatives; (b) there are blanks he'd like filled in, in the tree, so at least some of those people aren't totally forgotten; and (c) you're likely to stumble onto anything he's hiding, anyway. (I wouldn't articulate that last point. The implication will already be obvious, if "secrets" are the issue.)

If you start suspecting that there really are secrets, it's best to open that door and air them. My best resources for the "skeletons in the closet" are former (divorced) members of the family. Especially a bitter ex-spouse (of a cousin, or whatever) may know the stories and be absolutely delighted to share them... exaggerated of course. (Keep that in mind. You won't be hearing the best version of the tales.)

Once you have an idea of what's being hidden, it's usually easier to find a delicate way of hinting that you already know, with just enough information to make that clear. Then, reluctant relatives can be more comfortable talking about things they've been hiding.


You should highlight to him the difficulty he may be having finding out about his distant relatives, assuming he is having difficulty. Then explain the same difficulties may occur in the future, if he does not provide sufficient details now.

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    My experince is that 'reminding them of their mortality' is one of the reasons people don't like to do this. So I would be very careful with the 'same difficulties may occur in the future' argument.
    – Duncan
    Commented Dec 3, 2012 at 5:01

When you say he is "not interested" in telling his own story, do you mean he outright refuses to talk, or he is reluctant / shy? Usually the problem is that you asked him too broad a question, like "tell me your life story", or worse you asked him to write it down.

Do a google search for FAMILY HISTORY INTERVIEWING and read as many tips as you can. Get the grandkids involved, and go through his photo albums together. Label them as you go. Ask about his parents and siblings when he was young. Don't be pushy, and do a little at a time.


This is a common occurence, the mistake I made in these types of family interviews was making them an interview at all. In order to get a comfortable setting you have to visit not interview.

Sit around and talk about your life and the calamity of your own follies. After a while you'll be flooded with stories. I had a Pastor ask me "So do you write your family history like people tell their life's story". My response was, " Not really, I like to add the ommitted things people tend to forget." This of course had a great laugh around the room.

Photographs and Stories go hand and hand especially during a family gathering, a wedding, funeral, birth, as well as holiday events and so forth.

I hope this humble opinion of mine helps answer this question for you. : }


My late Grandfather was always reluctant to discuss his family tree with me... and it was quite a block... all I had was an alleged name of my GGM

I then made contact with someone on the internet, who'd found a reference to her on my website, and who furnished me with a load of information - much of which was apocryphal (or at least wildly inaccurate)

This suggested that, after my GGF's first wife died (in childbirth) he took in a housekeeper, and my granddad was the outcome...

When I approached my granddad with this information, his reaction was to angrily throw the paper onto his fire... I left a second copy, and a few hours later got a (slightly drunken) phone call, in which he opened up and gave me a load of corrections!

This was all a rather long winded way of suggesting that, as an ice-breaker, ask him to fill in a small gap in your research, and see where the discussion goes...

A lot of what passes for normal nowadays was bordering on heresy a few generations back... there may be a detail he doesn't want airing...

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    +1 old men around a six pack of beer is bound to turn up the best family history!
    – fbrereto
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 0:54

There may be some reason that he is uncomfortable talking about close family -- there may be 'history' or 'secrets' you don't know that make him unwilling to talk. He may not wish to provide information he feels is private about the living or recently deceased. Or, as other have said, he may not wish to be reminded of his own mortality.

Have you asked him why he's unwilling to talk, or if there are topics or individuals he will discuss and areas which are definitely out of bounds? If you can establish trust that you won't intrude on his (possibly quite reasonable) protected boundaries, he may open up on some things.

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