Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

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7. Setting Up the Interview

Once I have a list of potential narrators, what's the best approach for getting in touch with a narrator?

First contact with the narrator should be by letter, from the sole interviewer or the project director. In this initial contact, the interviewer or project director explains the goals of the interview or project, briefly describes the reasons for asking the narrator to participate, and (in the case of a project) gives the narrator the name of the person who will be doing the interview. In a project, the director also lets the narrator know that the interviewer will contact him or her within a week to discuss the project further. Click here for a sample initial contact letter.

The interviewer then often follows up by telephone. This conversation covers the following:

  • Asking the narrator if he or she has any questions about the interview or project and is willing to participate in it.

  • Explaining the use of the release form, the need for it, potential uses of the results of the interview, and that both interviewer and narrator will sign the form immediately after the interview.

  • Telling the narrator where the interview repository is.

  • Explaining how the interview will be conducted.

  • Setting a date, time, and place for the interview, usually about two weeks ahead, to allow for preparation time.

The interviewer then sends a letter confirming the interview and identifying the general points to be covered in it. Click here for a sample interview confirmation letter.

Should I send the narrator a list of questions?

No. Giving the narrator the general interview subjects allows him or her to prepare for the interview by thinking about the general points to be covered. But sharing specific questions often results in narrow, rehearsed responses rather than the full, spontaneous accounts oral historians seek.

If I'm just going to interview Grandma, why can't I just call her up and find out when I can come over to talk to her about her growing-up years?

Certainly, you can do that. But you probably won't get as good an interview as you would if you treated her the way you'd treat a stranger. Explaining the process, describing the release form you'll ask her to sign, doing some background research, outlining the general topics you want to cover - these are all signs of professionalism and of respect for the narrator and for the information she has to share.

Would it help if I have some specific information about the narrator, not just the general information about the time and subject we're going to cover?

Absolutely. Narrator-specific research is as important as the general background research you conducted earlier. This can be recorded on a Biographical Information Form. Take the list of interview topics and read up as much as possible on the narrator, and talk to the narrator by telephone to fill in the biographical data. A conversation with the narrator might even give you more leads for additional background research.

But be careful: If you contact the narrator before the interview, make sure not to let him or her launch into the interview prematurely.

How do I make sure I cover all the topics in my preparations?

Using the interview topics and background information about the narrator as a guide, you can prepare an outline of questions or themes to cover in the interview.

These guidelines will help you prepare questions:

  • Begin with questions common to the goals of the interview or project as a whole before moving into questions unique to the narrator.

  • Go in chronological order, starting at the beginning of each subject to be covered and moving through them one by one.

  • Do not write out the questions in complete sentences; key words and phrases are all you need. The interview will seem more spontaneous and conversational, which is what you're after from your narrator.

  • Begin with information easiest for the narrator to talk about. Save difficult questions for later in the interview.

  • Ask for full names when proper names are mentioned and for clarification when place names, businesses and the like are mentioned.

  • Ask questions at the end designed to encourage the narrator to reflect on the experiences he or she has been discussing.

  • Develop enough questions to last about one to one and a half hours.

I know I shouldn't be late or cut short an interview, but how much time should this interview take?

When using audio equipment alone, it will take at least 15 to 20 minutes to set up the equipment and get the narrator settled and ready to begin (setup for a videotaped interview will take longer). The interviewer should also use this time to do the following:

  • Show the narrator the legal release form.

  • Answer any questions about the form or about the interview and the project.

  • Do the necessary sound check on the equipment.

Altogether, a single one- to one-and-one-half-hour audio interview can take up to three hours.

OK, I'm at the narrator's home. Now what?

The best interview setting is usually one in which the narrator is most comfortable. It should be as quiet as possible to maximize sound quality. If video is used, lighting and a good view of any items the narrator wants to show are important. The interviewer should do as much as possible to control extra sounds, such as barking dogs, ringing phones, and ticking clocks. Some sounds, such as furnaces or air conditioners, cannot be changed.

Follow these guidelines to set up an audio-only interview:

  • The interviewer should sit across from the narrator at a distance of about six feet.

  • The recorder should be next to the interviewer where it can be seen easily.

  • Extra tapes or CDs (recording media) should be near the recorder and within easy reach of the interviewer.

  • The microphone should be pointed at the narrator at a distance of about two feet, depending on its sound collection pattern.

Other points to remember for an audio-only interview:

  • Use headphones to monitor the sound during the interview.

  • Keep a close eye on the equipment, making sure everything is running smoothly.

  • Watch the recording media for signs of ending, and change it in a timely manner. Using a timer to alert you to when a tape has reached its recording limit is a good idea.

  • Do not re-use an already recorded tape or CD.

8. Conducting the Interview: Techniques that Work

NOTE: For simplicity, the following guidelines relate to conducting audio-only interviews

How do I start the actual interview?

Begin with a recorded introduction that follows a standard format. Here's an example:

"This interview is being conducted for the Acme School Oral History Project, sponsored by the River County Historical Society. The interviewer is Mary Jones. The narrator is Jane Smith. The interview is taking place at Mrs. Smith's farm in rural River County on November 20, 2004."

How can I ask effective questions?

Here are some tips for asking effective questions, using your question format as a guide:

  • Rely on open-ended questions that require more than a one-word answer. Examples: Tell me about your high school education. How did you celebrate Christmas? Describe your first home.

  • Use neutral, not leading, questions or statements. Example: "Tell me about living here" rather than " Why don't you like living here?"

  • Questions that start with how, what, when, why, where, and who can introduce a new subject or follow up on an initial statement. Examples: How did you first learn that the Acme School would be closed? Tell me more about that.

  • Ask only one question at a time.

  • Keep your opinions to yourself.

  • Listen carefully without interrupting. Oral historians are looking for details and insights, not sound bites like you might hear on television or radio.

  • Use body language, eye contact and silence to encourage a narrator to keep going. Avoid repeated "uh-huh" or "I see." Such interruptions by the interviewer make it difficult to use audio excerpts from an interview in public programming.

  • Ask follow-up questions to draw out details and clarify information.

  • Ask only questions your narrator can answer from firsthand knowledge. Stay away from questions beyond the narrator's area of expertise.

  • If a narrator uses jargon or acronyms, ask for explanations. Twenty years from now, someone reading a transcript of your interview might have a tough time understanding that verbal shorthand.

  • Jot down proper names or place names the narrator mentions so you can ask for correct spellings at the end of the interview. The person who transcribes the interview will thank you.

  • Keep track of the time. Oral history interviews usually don't last more than one or one and one half hours. Elderly narrators, in particular, often have limited energy, so try not to tax them unnecessarily. If you need more time, schedule another session.

9. After the Interview: Wrapping up the Details

What am I supposed to do after the interview is over?

An oral historian's job doesn't end when the interview is over. This checklist will help you after the recorder is turned off. Most of these steps begin the task of preparing the interview for others to have access to it.

  • Sign the release form as soon as the interview is over. It's a good idea to take a photograph of the narrator in the interview setting for the master file. Remember that black-and-white photos have a longer archival life than color photos.

  • Thank the narrator.

  • Pack the equipment so it will be ready for another interview.

  • Label the recording media (CDs or tapes) with the name of the narrator and the date of the interview. Be sure to mark sides A and B of analog cassette tapes, and number the media if more than one was used.

  • If you used analog cassettes, pop out the two tabs on the back edge of the cassette housing to prevent them from being mistakenly recorded over.

  • Make the use copies from the masters and label them.

  • Write the narrator a thank you letter. Include a copy of the interview.

  • Fill out the Interview Information Form documenting the names of the narrator and interviewer, the number of tapes or CDs used, the signing of the release form, and a brief list of the information covered in the interview.

  • Process the interview to prepare it and its accompanying materials for deposit in the repository and so others will have access to the information (for details, see Section 10).

  • If part of a project, turn all materials over to the project director.

When the entire project is complete, . .

  • Deposit the materials in the repository;

  • Prepare news releases or any other publicity related to the project;

  • Arrange and execute any post-project events or presentations;

  • Throw a party for everyone involved!

10. Processing: Making Oral History Materials Accessible

Processing is a term encompassing all the tasks associated with assembling all the materials that relate to an interview and preparing it and its accompanying materials for deposit in the repository. These steps ensure that the results of your efforts will be both accessible and useful to anyone who uses it in the future.

These steps are particularly important in the context of depositing the materials in the repository because a library archives, museum or other such institution is unlikely to be able or willing to take on the tasks, and would prefer to acquire a resource that is ready to use. This will likely become evident when you first approach a repository. Besides, these steps are a part of the responsibility of practicing oral history. It's not really done until these tasks are completed.

What's the first step in making an interview available to others?

Make copies. And as mentioned previously, you may want to make several. The original recording (the master) should be kept in a safe place and should not be used for transcribing or for any purpose other than to make the copies and to give to the repository. Make enough copies to give one each to the narrator and transcriber and an additional use copy for the repository.

What about the research notes, release forms and other materials?

All the materials you created or gathered to support the interview should be kept and associated (usually by the name of the narrator and the date of the interview) with the interview. These eventually will accompany the master recordings when they are turned over to the repository. In the case of a project, these materials go to the project director first, along with the master and copy recordings. The director will see that they all reach the repository.

What other processing is necessary to make the interviews accessible?

The most common ways to make oral history interviews fully accessible are to create an interview abstract or a transcript.

An abstract is a timed outline of the interview contents, describing the subjects being discussed and the times in the interview at which they appear. It usually summarizes the content at three- to five-minute intervals, or when the subject substantially changes in the course of the interview. Click here for a sample abstract.

A transcript is a word-for-word printed copy of the interview. This provides the most complete access to the interview information and is the recommended approach to provide permanent access. Click here for a sample transcript.

In addition to an abstract or a transcript, the repository will appreciate (even require) a synopsis of the interview. This is usually a single paragraph summary of the interview -- the main issues, topics, people, places and events covered by the narrator's words. In addition to this summary paragraph, the synopsis should include the name of the narrator, the name of the interviewer, and the date and place of the interview. Click here for a sample synopsis.

Tell me more about transcribing.

Transcribing is a time-consuming process, usually taking about eight hours one of transcription time for each hour of recorded interview. But the result is worth the effort. These guidelines can help:

  • Use a copy of the interview; never use the master media.

  • Use a transcribing machine, if available.

  • Type a word-for-word draft. Either the interviewer or a transcriber can do this task.

  • Follow standard punctuation and grammar guidelines. For detailed style information, see Baylor University Institute for Oral History's Oral History Transcribing Style Guide.

  • The interviewer then checks the draft transcript against the copy of the recorded interview. The interviewer may be able to fill in missing words that the transcriber couldn't decipher.

  • Check unclear facts and spellings of all proper and place names. The narrator is usually, but not always, a good source for these corrections.

  • Make final corrections to the transcript and print it out on acid-free paper.

  • Keep the original transcript with the narrator's file. Make a copy for the narrator and additional copies as needed.

  • Give all materials, including a computer disk or CD containing the transcript, to the repository.

Some interviewers send a draft copy of the transcript to the narrator for review. Narrators, however, can find it difficult to read their spoken words and may try to edit the transcript too heavily, which should be avoided.

It seems like practicing and processing oral histories involves a lot of important steps. How can I keep track of it all?

Doing oral history well - so that you create resources of lasting value - does indeed involve a lot of important steps. The following checklist will help you prepare to deposit your interview and all related materials in the repository. That way, future generations will be able to learn from your narrator's story and benefit from all your efforts. Make sure you have . . .

  • Determined that the subject of the interview or project falls within the scope of the repository's collection guidelines;

  • Included signed release forms that meet the repository's requirements;

  • Used recording media that meet the repository's specifications;

  • Properly labeled all recording media with the full name of the narrator, interviewer and date of the interview;

  • Included all accompanying support materials;

  • Included a short synopsis of the interview contents as well as a timed abstract or transcript of the recording.

11. Additional Resources

Many books and articles are available to help novice and experienced oral historians improve their skills.
If you want more details than this primer can offer, these books can help.

The Oral History Manual, by Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002). Detailed, step-by-step instructions to help beginners get started on an oral history project. While many publications focus solely on interviewing, this book also helps project directors or committees understand the importance of planning. It describes in detail the steps involved in planning and carrying out an oral history project.

Native American Veterans Oral History Manual, by Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan (Lincoln, NE: Nebraska Foundation for the Preservation of Oral History, 2005).

Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide, 2nd edition, by Donald A. Ritchie (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2003). Widely regarded as a "must-read" for novice and experienced oral historians, this book uses a question-and-answer format to address a wide variety of concerns oral historians face. Many examples of oral historians and their work enliven this detailed resource.

Oral History Evaluation Guidelines (Carlisle, PA: Oral History Association, 2002). Part of the Oral History Association's pamphlet series, this publication sets forth ethical considerations oral historians should follow. It describes ethical standards for collecting, processing, archiving and using oral history materials.

Oral History and the Law, 3rd edition, by John A. Neuenschwander (Carlisle, PA: Oral History Association, 2002). This publication from the OHA pamphlet series is required reading for anyone embarking on an oral history project. The author draws on his experiences as an oral historian, history professor, lawyer and municipal judge to review in detail the legal issues relating to oral history. Copyright, defamation, libel and other key terms are explained thoroughly along with a discussion of significant court cases.

Oral History Projects in Your Classroom, by Linda P. Wood (Carlisle, PA: Oral History Association, 2001). One of offerings in the OHA pamphlet series, this loose-leaf publication by a former high school librarian contains interesting examples and reproducible forms teachers may find useful in classroom oral history projects.

Dialog with the Past: Engaging Students & Meeting Standards through Oral History, by Glenn Whitman (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004). This new book gives teachers who want to incorporate oral history in their classrooms a practical guide with a wealth of information. An experienced social studies teacher, Whitman shows teachers how oral history work fulfills various state and national performance standards in various curriculum areas.

Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists, 2nd edition, by Valerie Raleigh Yow (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2005). Written primarily as a college text for interviewers in the social sciences, this book examines in detail some of the complexities of conducting oral history interviews. Yow describes challenging situations interviewers may encounter and suggests how to handle them; the new edition includes a chapter on memory. She also includes extensive footnotes and suggested readings for those interested in delving more deeply into interviewing.

You may also find these Web-based resources helpful:

Oral History Association
P.O. Box 1773
Carlisle, PA 17013

Baylor University Institute for Oral History

"Oral History Workshop on the Web"

History Matters

"Making Sense of Oral History"

The Oral History Listserv (no dues or fees required) is a good resource for current information. To subscribe to or search previous message on this listserv, see

12. Appendix

The following forms and samples are referred to throughout the primer text. They are in HTML format.

  • Release Form

  • Biographical Information Form

  • Interview Information Form

  • Potential Narrator Information Form

  • Interviewer Agreement Form

  • Transcriber Agreement Form

  • Equipment Check-Out Sheet

  • Staff Time Log

  • Volunteer Time Log

  • Oral History Project Status Log

  • Artifact and Photograph Inventory Form

  • Initial Contact Letter

  • Interview Confirmation Letter

  • Thank You Letter

  • Abstract

  • Transcript

  • Synopsis

  • Donor

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