Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

Getting Ready to Interview: Preliminary Steps

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6. Getting Ready to Interview: Preliminary Steps

Now that I've made my plans and have my equipment, how do I get ready for the interview?

First, do background research.

Successful oral history interviews depend on a well-prepared interviewer. This begins with a review of existing sources of information about your chosen interview topics. Remember that your interviews are intended to uncover new information, something that is not already known about your topic. Background research will help you find out what is already known. Here are some of the more common places to find such information:

What is already on the record and where? Who said what and why? Oral history interviews can collect new information to fill in gaps in existing knowledge and to correct misinterpretations or false information. Knowing what is on the record helps interviewers and project directors determine themes to focus on in the interviews so you will use the interview time to the best advantage.

What's a good strategy for keeping track of all that I learn?

Develop a bibliography. As with any project that involves ongoing reading and research, keep track of the materials you use. When the interview or project is completed, this bibliography will become part of the background material documenting its development.

Also, create a list of dates, places and names related to the interview topics. Everyone involved in an oral history interview can benefit from a master list of dates, place names and proper names associated with the interview topics. That helps everyone involved keep things straight. When the interview or project is completed, this list will become part of the material documenting its development.

What should I do with the background research?

The background research is the best way to find out what's already known about your subject, as well as what is not already on the record.

Using the background research, you can develop a list of possible topics or themes to cover with the interviewee. This becomes the structure for the oral history question outline that will guide the interview.

The topics or themes can be focused as needed. They should stem from what the project is after, identifying areas where more information is needed and areas where contradictions in the existing record could be clarified. Some questions may be asked to all narrators, and others may be limited to just one or two narrators.

For example, using the Acme School Oral History Project as an illustration, questions covering general memories about closing the school will be common to all narrators. Specific questions about how it affected the students will be asked of the students, while school board members will be asked questions related to how they made their decision. In other words, narrators are asked to provide information from their own specific backgrounds and knowledge.

In another example, if you already know you are going to interview your grandmother and you know she grew up on a ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska during the Great Depression, your background research might include some general reading about that era on the Great Plains. Maybe you'll want to look up some census figures about population trends in that time and place. If a local history book or pamphlet ever was published, that would be a good source, too.

What if I don't have a particular person in mind to interview?

Doing the research and listing the specific interview topics also helps to identify potential narrators. Thinking about the types of information you want often leads to people most knowledgeable about these subjects. They may be the best choices for narrators.

Choose narrators with a variety of backgrounds who reflect all aspects of your interview topic. In the Acme School Oral History Project example, project directors could choose to interview people who both supported and opposed the school closing. They also would want to interview students, teachers, school administrators, community leaders (the mayor or someone from the city council), school board members and the like. Each brings a perspective that helps fill in the whole picture.

What if the research leads me to dozens of potential narrators but I don't want to conduct that many interviews?

Interviewers and project directors sometimes make the mistake of planning for too many interviews. Preparing for, conducting, and following up an interview takes about three working days spread over about three weeks total time. Directors of larger oral history projects often ask each interviewer to take on two or three interviews and do them thoroughly beginning to end.

The number of interviews you can do depends on how much time and resources are at your disposal, and the number of interviewers available. Using a rule of thumb of two or three interviews per interviewer, and factoring in the time it takes to complete an interview, the time available, and the number of interviewers, you should be able to arrive at a good estimate of how many interviews you can realistically complete.

How should I assign interviewers to potential narrators? Does it matter?

If you have more than one interviewer at your disposal, pairing interviewers and narrators is an important decision. Both narrator and interviewer bring a unique perspective and personality to the interview. The combination will affect the outcome, making each interview a one-of-a-kind product. Project directors should put careful thought into interviewer-narrator pairs. Here are some of the issues involved with pairing decisions:

  • Pairing younger interviewers with older narrators may work extremely well, but may instead cause the narrator to withhold information that he or she thinks the younger person wouldn't understand.

  • Pairing men with women could have the same effect.

  • Some people are known to dislike or be uncomfortable with one another, making an effective interview unlikely.

  • Some people are so close they would talk in shorthand, making brief, casual references to people, places and events, and leaving future listeners in the dark.

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