Vol. 4, # 4
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Oral History Interviews
Oral history interviewing is a tool that’s used for research in history, anthropology, and folklore. Oral history collects information about the past from observers and participants in that past. It gathers data not available in written records about events, people, decisions, and processes. Oral history interviews are grounded in memory, and memory is used for recording the past. Oral history can reveal how individual values and actions shaped the past, and how the past shapes present-day values and actions.
Every interviewing experience is unique; this is part of the whole experience. There are things that need to be done before, during, and after an interview to make every interview more successful.
Before the Interview
Set goals for the project before beginning. First: what are you trying to learn? You might want to come up with a sentence or two that summarizes your research goals, so that you can easily explain to your interviewees what you are researching and why it is important. Second: what kinds of information already exists about your research, and in what form? When studying a family, data may be in different forms—scrapbooks, photographs, family heirlooms, diaries, etc. Third: you need to consider who you will need to interview to learn about a family. Make a list of potential interviewees; this list will grow as you are referred to additional interviewees.
Remember what information you want to gain from the interview, and design your pre-interview study with that focus in mind. Remain open-minded, however; data can take you in new directions as the research and the interviews progress. Use as many resources as you have available to become familiar with the person or people you’ll be interviewing. Such knowledge will also assist you in establishing rapport with the interviewee by laying a ground work of shared knowledge and confirming your interest in what they have to say.
Set up the appointment for the interview, confirm the appointment, and keep the appointment. Arrange to conduct the interview in a place and time most comfortable for the interviewee, away from noise and distractions.
Prepare a list of questions for the interview. You need not follow this list exactly; other questions will arise during the interview, but they will give a solid organization to your interview. Put the simplest questions, like biographical data, at the beginning, and the most complex or sensitive questions at the end. Group the questions logically, so you and your subject can easily follow the progression of ideas or chronology in the interview. If you’re not sure of the wording of a question you’ve constructed, try it out on another person. Another good way to check the focus of individual questions is to ask yourself, “What am I trying to learn with this question?”
Ask open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered by yes or no. You want to elicit the fullest response possible to each question. Especially don't ask leading questions. Try to ask simply structured, single-stranded questions. Take your time. If you have more than one point to pursue on a given topic, compose follow-up questions. And if a point that hasn't occurred to you in composing your questionnaire flies by in the midst of an interviewee's answer, you can always go back to it later in the interview.
Questions should be not only open-ended but concrete. Remember that people's memories “hang on substantial hooks”. Asking for a description of a typical day, a family gathering, or breaking a subject down into elements will give the interviewee points of reference from which to reminisce.
Interviews are generally improved by sending the interviewee a list of your questions or a summary of the topics you'll be asking about. The point is to give the interviewee time before the interview to think about people and events that may not have occurred to him/her in a long time. Be sure to explain that the questionnaire or summary is only a framework, and that other points may occur to both of you that could be included during the interview.
Be aware that there can be subject areas or data out of your reach because of some inhibiting factor in your relationship to the interviewee: sex, age, class, etc. Be sensitive to these factors, and try to work past them, but don't alienate the interviewee by pressing too hard for information he/she doesn't want to share. The single best strategy for bridging these kinds of obstacles is for the interviewer to show respect and courtesy to the interviewee, and to make the interview itself a “safe place” where the interviewee feels heard and understood.
Unexpected barriers to open discussions can also arise from your level of familiarity with the interviewee. This can be a particular challenge when interviewing family members. Things you both know can be taken for granted, and things taken for granted are generally unspoken.
Know your ethical responsibilities as an interviewer. Be prepared to answer any questions the interviewee may have about the interview or the research project.
At the Interview
It's best to have a one-on-one interview so that the interviewee's attention is focused on you. Also, examine the area around you before you begin the interview and choose the quietest location you have available to you.
Begin by collecting simple biographical information from the interviewee, such as full name, date of birth, and place of birth (which should be at the front of your questionnaire). This helps put the interviewee at ease and gets the basic information about your subject up front in the interview. It is your responsibility to monitor the well being of your interviewee. If you are doing a long interview, take a brief break. This alleviates fatigue and is beneficial to both of you.
Speak at a sedate pace, and speak clearly. The tone you set will generally be echoed by the interviewee. After you ask a question, stop...and wait for the answer, even if you have to sit in silence for several seconds. Subjects often need several moments to think about the questions you ask. Give them quiet time.
Once the answer comes, don't cut off or talk over an interviewee. Some people do like to go on and on, but let them talk to the end of their strand of thought and wait for an opening patiently. Cutting them off gives the impression that what they're saying isn't important to you, or that you're hurrying through the interview.
Keep alert for cues from the interviewee that he/she will expand on a topic you bring up provided you let them know you want to hear it. For example, if an interviewee says, "Oh, that wasn't much of a problem, although I can think of several times where it was," it's a cue to say, "Would you like to tell me about those times?" This not only shows you're listening and enhances rapport with the interviewee; it can also give you good material the interviewee won't volunteer otherwise. Keep alert for clues that the interviewee is uncomfortable with a question or line of questioning.
Be alert to your own responses to an interviewee's remarks, taking care not to sound judgmental, impatient, or disrespectful. An interview is not the place to show off how much you know, or to take issue with an interviewee's beliefs or opinions. Remember: you are that “safe place” in which the interviewee can be heard and understood. All interviewees are to be treated with unfailing courtesy, respect, and gratitude for the privilege of sharing a part of their lives with you.
One last element of interviewee behavior to keep an eye on, especially with older subjects, is fatigue. Interviewing is a tiring process; it is emotionally and intellectually challenging. If the person is showing signs of weariness, it's better to adjourn and take up the interview another time than to press on with an interviewee who's too tired to think clearly any longer but too polite to tell you enough is enough. You can always reschedule and continue the interview another time.
After the Interview
Unless the interviewee is pressed for time, don't run right out after an interview. Field notes can cover the major topics of the interview, your impressions of the interviewee, and any special requests you need to follow up for the interviewee. These notes are generally for the researcher's own use. They can be very helpful in providing a quick reference point for the interview context and the data gathered.
Collateral materials are documents or photos or material artifacts that accompany or supplement an interview. If these are loaned to you, be sure to copy or scan them, and return them promptly. If they are given to you to keep, be sure to label them and keep them with whatever explanatory notes may be needed to explain the significance of the artifact.
When you sit and talk with anyone or with any group of people for an oral history interview, it always takes interesting twists and turns that you didn't expect. You've got to have a very flexible plan.
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Fact: Here are several excellent books that discuss in more detail interview techniques, problems, and ethics. Also listed are the guidelines of the Oral History Association.
Edward D. Ives. The Tape-Recorded Interview: A Manual for Field Workers in Folklore and Oral History. University of Tennessee Press, 1980.
Oral History Association. Oral History Evaluation Guidelines. Pamphlet Number 3. Adopted 1989, revised September 2000. http://omega.dickinson.edu/organizations/oha/pub_eg.html 9
Donald A. Ritchie. Doing Oral History. Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Vera Rosenbluth. Keeping Family Stories Alive. Hartley and Marks, 1997.
Barbara Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan. The Oral History Manual. AltaMira Press, 2002.
Valerie Raleigh Yow. Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists. Sage Publications, 1994.
Tip: Send a thank-you note to the interviewee. If any special arrangements were made —for example, for copies of the interview or a follow-up interview—mention those in the note, and follow up.
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From ‘Pieces of Clay’ the Clay Family newsletter comes this interesting item. “The State of Kentucky has a great Land Records website that contains information and copies of land warrants that were granted to Revolutionary War Veterans, and land patents for early non military settlers. Since many of these warrants and patents were issued while Kentucky was still a part of Virginia, one may find records of ancestors who were still living in Virginia during the post revolutionary period, and also records of those who began moving west in that time. The site is searchable and user-friendly and the original warrants can be printed to provide hard copies. The web URL is – http://www.sos.ky.gov/land
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