Extract from: Government of British Columbia Historical Archives Manual “Oral History”
From Memory to Artifact: The Recorded Interview
Oral history interviews are a special kind of sound recording which combine complex human factors with the technical aspects of tape recording. You can, of course, casually record any conversation and occasionally produce an interesting and informative document, but careful preparation and a foreknowledge of the potentials and pitfalls of interviewing can make the production of a worthwhile historical document more likely. This chapter describes how to prepare for and undertake oral history interviews and discusses many of the challenges of this art, but only experience and practice will enable you to develop research and interview skills.
To Record Or Not To Record
Anyone planning to conduct an oral history interview should first consider if this is the best way to achieve their goal. Some interviewers, of course, begin with the idea of tape recording a particular person for permanent preservation but others researchers start with a topic which might be investigated in a variety of ways. In the first case the need for oral history is obvious. But for the latter there is a real question as to whether an interview is the best way to obtain the information. Interviewers should also consider the broader historical significance of their interview perhaps recording information not immediately pertinent to the interviewer’s topic but which will obviously be useful to others.
Any topic which involves oral tradition or living memory is a likely prospect for oral history, especially if there is a shortage of other information and human memory is the only source available. But even in cases where ample printed sources exist it may be necessary, as in the ease of a radio program, to produce an oral version or to capture the voice of a protagonist. Decisions to record are made not only in relation to the historical record but also in relation to the goals of the project.
The besetting sin of the historian has been to “tidy up” the past, to impute pattern to accident and purpose to fortuity .. (Oral History) gives adequate scope to the play of contingency, change, ignorance and sheer stupidity.
—A.M. Schleshinger, Jr. Oral History
Oral history is not the best way to obtain some kinds of information: lists. Statistics, and even some kinds of genealogical information, are better recorded on paper even when the original source is the spoken word. Other information is best collected in the form of written questionnaires. If, however, interviewees can add to existing information with first person evaluations descriptions or anecdotes an interview is the best way to proceed.
There are several types of oral history interviews and while there is some overlap among them they may be classified as follows.
Autobiographical Interview: This is the most personal type of oral history because it is the subjective story of an individual. The interviewee has usually led a colourful life not well-documented in other sources and the events of the interviewee’s life are used to record the details of daily life and work. While the interview should he relaxed and free-flowing, it is also organized into large blocks of time or themes: childhood, school, marriage, work, and so on.
Supplementary Interview: Oral history can add new dimensions and insights to subjects that are already documented by written sources. The supplementary interview is undertaken after the researcher has discovered gaps in the historical record. The outcome of a political leadership campaign, for instance, may be well-known, but the story behind the scenes might only be documented by oral history. Other examples of topics that may be covered by this type of interview are the reasons behind a person’s decisions, or a personal view by a participant in a well-known event.
Topical Interview: Topical interviews deal with a single theme or interlocking set of themes. For example, the interviews could deal with an ethnic group such as the Japanese-Canadians, a group such as the elderly, institutions such as a hospital or school, a company or corporation, a special interest group such as a professional association or a labour union, an event such as an election, a war, a depression, immigration, or a social phenomenon such as child-rearing or death. The topical approach combines some of the aspects of autobiographical and supplementary interviewing. Interviews are often conducted with several interviewees, and similar questions are asked to obtain a variety of descriptions and interpretations of the same subject.
Process Interview: This type of interview focuses on change or development in a person, place, industry, institution, or other phenomenon. The interviewer usually follows a formal set of questions which can be asked again at a later date. This type of research is similar in many respects to research done with written questionnaires except that the answers are given in more fluid oral style. The process of becoming a citizen, for example might be studied by interviewing people at the time they become landed immigrants and again some years later.
Unstructured Narrative: This is a popular type of oral history and a good way to begin interviewing. Interviewee’s talk about those things which interest them, usually episodes of their own lives events and people they knew well.
Neither oral nor written evidence can be said, to be generally superior: it depends on the context.
—Paul Thompson. The Voice the Past
Unlike autobiographical interviewing, the chronological order may be abandoned and the interviewee is permitted to follow thoughts as they occur. Not all interviews will lend themselves to this form of view but only a fine speaker or natural raconteur will provide a fascinating narrative. Questioning is often minimal although the interviewer may wish draw the speaker back to a subject from time to time or ask for more detail.
Most oral history interviews will fall into one of these categories (or a combination of categories) It is helpful in the next stages – research – question set preparation — to know what kind interview you are preparing for.
The Interviewer/Interviewee Relationship: Personality and Culture
Interviewers should understand their own role creating oral history. Interviews are undertaken in deliberate and premeditated way and the structural values and motives involved should be evident both their creation and use. The personal aspect of the interview are unpredictable and challenging, even if human variables make oral history difficult to create and use, it also makes it a particularly rich and valuable historical source.
Oral history fieldwork requires different skills than archival or library research, calling for not only general knowledge and background research to earn the respect of the interviewee, but also social skills and the technical skills to unobtrusively operate the tape recording equipment. It requires flexibility resourcefulness to take advantage of opportunities in the course of an interview. The ability to adapt to changing circumstances and different personalities and to bring out the best in both.
An oral history interview is a co-operative effort in which the interviewer, who initiates and structures the interview, bears the major burden of establishing rapport and ensuring sensitive treatment of the person’s reminiscences as they are recorded, preserved and later used. You must maintain an honourable relationship with the person who has entrusted personal thoughts and you must maintain good faith in all matters of obligation to the interviewee. You can accomplish this if you develop an honest rapport with the interviewee while at the same time retaining a neutral stance toward the interviewee’s ideas, what one writer called “balance of empathy and analytical judgment.” Contact between you and the interviewee should begin with a clear explanation of your aims for the interview and the uses to which the material may later be put. This should involve the later signing of a tape release in which the interviewee can place conditions or restrictions on the use of the recording.
A good interviewer is a person of integrity, a good researcher as well as sensitive, affable and resourceful, with an intense interest in both the topic of research and people. Some people are unsuited to the role of interviewer, not so much because they lack intelligence or interest, but because they are inflexible, do not relate well to different types of people or do not respond well in unexpected situations. They may have set views on a subject which they try to get interviewees to support, or they may be compulsive talkers rather than good listeners. Interviews in which the interviewer participates as much as the interviewee and expresses strong opinions may occasionally be successful. More often, however, interviewers need to be able to listen, and provide positive response to the interviewee’s account, while providing a subtle (but recognized) structure to the interview.
Even your physical appearance can affect the interview. Manners or dress which are an extreme contrast to those of the interviewee can damage rapport, so a modification of your dress and appearance might sometimes be appropriate. It would be inappropriate, for example, to show up for most interviews in bare feet wearing faded jeans and a gaudy t-shirt, even if that is your usual attire.
A good interviewee is difficult to define. People with many different characteristics and personalities make excellent interviewees. There are, however, some basic qualifications. These include a good memory, the ability to understand and respond to questions and to give articulate answers. People with speech or hearing impairments, poor memories, inability to express thoughts clearly, or other difficulties associated with poor health or advanced age may be unsuitable for oral history, regardless of their experiences. For research purposes, recordings may usefully be made of people who are marginal in some of these areas (such as voice quality), but for other users these considerations will be more significant. Broadcasters, for example, prefer strong and interesting voices. In general, however, the life experiences and memory of a person will be the most important factors in making them a good interviewee.
Communication between you and the interviewee can be confounded by different economic, social or cultural backgrounds. Interviewees may be reluctant to speak candidly with an outsider, especially if you are from a group which has traditionally looked down upon that of the interviewee or even persecuted it. For example, a researcher from a government-sponsored project might have trouble in gaining the confidence of interviewees who are being asked about dissident activities in their past. In addition, the outsider may not understand the particular forms of social interaction in the interviewee’s group and not know the appropriate questions. You might ask questions that are relevant to you but meaningless to the interviewee and hence receive only a partial and perhaps distorted picture.
On the other hand, the insider who is from the interviewee’s group (and especially one who knows the interviewee personally) may inhibit the interviewee or only ask questions which are exceptional rather than obvious. The interview may disintegrate into a conversation in which everything is alluded to rather than fully identified or described. (Did you ever work with Joe? Oh, sure, great guy. Remember the time he called Sam and . . . etc.) The insider, however, is more likely to understand the background of an interviewee and may be the only person to whom they will confide their story.
There may be considerable conflict of aims or opinion between you and the interviewee. Nevertheless, an experienced interviewer who is aware of the potential problem can direct an interview without leading or bullying the interviewee. The importance of understanding and empathizing with the interviewee’s point of view cannot be over-emphasized. This is not hypocrisy. In fact, some would argue that this understanding (or rethinking) is the real aim of historical study. Even the best interviewer may find people with whom he can establish no useful rapport but such cases will be rare. Good interviewers will he able to value their own views while gaining insights into those of others.
Research begins, in a sense, with the dawning of the idea of an interview, but there are specific types of research for oral history interviews which are emphasized here. In some cases, a certain amount of background digging will be necessary simply to establish the desirability of using oral history as opposed to other types of research. In other cases this need will be evident from the beginning and the effort can focus upon the subject and the interviews that will be conducted. There are usually at least two levels of research involved in oral history: general research on the subject and specific research leading to the selection and interviewing of particular people.
The historian using oral traditions finds himself on exactly the same level as historians using any other kind of historical material. No doubt he will arrive at a lower degree of probability than would otherwise be attained, but that does not rule out the fact that what he is doing is valid, and that it is history.
— Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition (1965)
Ideally, you should examine all available evidence on your subject in secondary and primary sources. Secondary sources will contain the results of previous studies and these can form the basis for research notes or a chronology indicating the major events and themes and the interpretation of them. If possible you should flesh these out with additional corroborative or supportive information from any primary sources which are available (paper documents, photographs. other recorded interviews, and so on). At the end of this phase, you should know the major facts and themes of your topic, as well as the gaps and questions.
While the sources of information are only limited by the skill, imagination and energy of the researcher, there are a number of likely routes to follow:
1. Books, articles or theses, by or about your proposed interviewee or about the subject matter of the interview.
2. Clipping files of newspaper articles which are maintained by larger libraries, and archives. These are often known as “vertical files” and will have clippings about people, subjects and places.
3. Archival collections of private manuscripts. These are usually indexed by name as well as subject.
4. Archives of government records which show potential interviewees in roles such as public employee, property owner, licensee, court defendant or appellant and so on.
5. Collections of photographs which may be useful for stimulating the memories of interviewees.
6. Newspaper indexes. In British Columbia, for instance, the Legislative Library has provided subject indexes to the major urban papers for the 20th century. The Provincial Archives has done the same for the 19th century.
7. Other oral history. Potential interviewees may already have been interviewed. Failing that, interviews with close associates or others with similar experiences may prove to be excellent sources.
Research might also include talks with experts in the field or long-term residents of an area. It may be a good idea to prepare a written report containing such basic information as a list of important events, dates, place names, well-known people, and a glossary of related terminology, special vocabulary and jargon. When interviewees have been selected, further research will be required to discover basic personal information, much of which will come from the interviewees themselves during preliminary interviews.
It is important for you to have absorbed the information well enough to be able to use it in a variety of ways. You should even be prepared to abandon it in the face of new evidence or views which may contradict things previously learned, and may prove to be more accurate, revealing or insightful.
During the research phase it is important to have an efficient system for storing and retrieving information. Every researcher, not only oral history interviewers, must devise a note-taking system. Be sure to be able to retrace your steps. Some piece of information which seemed relatively unimportant at first may assume greater significance as more is learned. Some combination of file cards and files or notebook will be appropriate for most researchers. If you lack confidence in your research skills, you will find research guides or handbooks in university and college bookstores and larger libraries.
Research, is an on-going process that begins long before the interviews and is not finished until the last interview is complete. The quality of the interviews and their future usefulness will depend to a great extent on the thoroughness and skill with which the research has been carried out.
One familiar question is, “How do you choose interviewees?” Sometimes, of course, there is very little choice and you have to make do with those available. However; if it is possible to choose between a number of potential interviewees, you must be selective. Oral history researchers tend to acquire a large volume of material and the information will be diffuse and thin if the interviewer has not been sufficiently selective in choosing interviewees. The question of selectivity is, of course, related to the question of the goals of the research and each potential interviewee should be carefully considered in light of these aims.
Leads to potential interviewees come from many sources; other interviewees, researchers, newspaper clippings or books. Keep track of these people by creating an informal card file of these people. Include as full a name and address as possible as well as notes on how they may be contacted and your source for the lead.
The first contact with the potential interviewee will often be by means of a letter which should provide a general introduction to you and your project and alert the interviewee that they are about to be contacted personally. At this point, the possibility of a tape recorded interview need not be mentioned for it may frighten some and excite others before the interviewer has a chance to determine whether tape recording is appropriate. This letter will establish the project in the potential interviewee’s mind and avoid the misunderstandings or partial comprehension that a brief and unheralded phone call or meeting might generate. Since first impressions are important, it is important that the letter strike the right tone. It should appear professional without being daunting or threatening. Neither should it be inappropriately casual or familiar.
The Preliminary Interview
The preliminary meeting allows you and interviewee to become acquainted without the distracting presence of the tape recorder.
If the potential interviewee is willing, a personal meeting should be arranged. After this meeting a decision can be made to tape record an interview or merely obtain information in note form and, with appropriate appreciation, complete this contact. If the person is suitable, a tape-recorded interview should be arranged at this time. There is a tendency for some people to launch into their story in response to preliminary questions and it is not always wise either to suppress such enthusiasm or to let them exhaust the material before recording can begin. You should assume that no recording would take place but have the recorder ready to use if appropriate.
The purpose of the interview and its relationship to the larger project should be explained mentioning, that the interview will be valuable not only to you but also for historians, educators and future scholars in general. This does not mean that the specific questions need to be reviewed but the interviewee should be advised of the format and general themes to be covered. On the other hand, the interviewee should be tactfully deterred from giving all the details which will be recorded later. Possible future uses of the interview should be discussed at this time as well as the fact that the interviewee will later be asked to sign a release form.
The preliminary interview is also the time to get the interviewee’s ideas on the subjects to be covered and the format of the interview. The cooperative aspects of the interview should be stressed and it should be explained that the interview should satisfy both of you. While engaged in this discussion, you should also note any special qualities or talents that the interviewee possesses. Story telling ability, voice characteristics, and sense of humour are qualities that may enhance an interview.
Since this session sets the pace for future meetings, do not be rushed or harried. Try to acquaint yourself with the interviewee’s schedule and interests so that interviews can be arranged in a convenient manner. If the interviewee has a spouse bring him or her into the process in order to gain their cooperation and enthusiasm.
Some interviewees need to be convinced of the value of having their reminiscences recorded and will protest that they have nothing of value to say because their lives were commonplace. In this case, you must reassure them that many people will have an interest in their experiences and that the interview is one good way of permanently preserving them. It is a sad comment on the place of history and tradition in our society that many people are genuinely surprised to hear that their experiences are of interest to others.
There are no absolute rules to indicate the reliability of oral evidence, any more than that of other historical sources … All are fallible and subject to bias and each has varying strengths in different situations.
— Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past (i34).
Another concern on the part of some interviewees is the use of the tape recorder itself. They might not mind note taking but are apprehensive about of being tape recorded. In this case, explain the helpfulness of a tape recorder, mentioning how frequently they are now used. You might wish to take the recorder along to this session to show to the interviewee, perhaps even demonstrating it. Whether or not the recorder is actually present, its necessity and technical requirements should be made clear.
In summary, a relaxed but straightforward pattern should be set at this session. The basic purpose of the meeting is to become acquainted with an interesting and enjoyable person.
A question set is simply a list of the questions to be covered in the interview. For some types of interviews (notably the unstructured narrative) the question set in written form is optional; for others it is essential. But even when it is used, it should be a guide and not an inflexible regimen. Most experienced interviewers use question sets in one form or another and they are highly recommended for inexperienced interviewers. If a written question set is to be prepared, the final version should be compiled after the preliminary meeting, using the information that is derived from it.
Question set formation is a creative part of the interview because you are deciding what will be included and what will not. You are also giving an overall structure to the interview that will obtain the best result both as to information and the natural drama of events.
It is a common practice to begin the first recorded session with basic biographical information such as full name, place and date of birth, and a few questions on family, social and occupational background. This is a good way to ease the interviewee into the question and answer format. It not only clearly identifies the interviewee but also establishes the chronological and social context. Future users will know of the type of person being interviewed and have a frame of reference for evaluating the material on the tape. It is not essential, however, to have this information on the tape so long as it is recorded on tape labels or other forms. With some interviewees it may be preferable to begin on a less formal note, such as a favorite story.
Most interviews require between 10 and 30 questions per hour although some people may need almost no prompting. If the interviewee is fluent and responsive, it is possible to frame a series of fairly specific questions and still get a wide range of material. On the other hand, if the interviewee tends to be terse, concise, or shy, more general questions may produce a better result.
A good method for organizing a question set is on file cards. Questions can be noted on these cards at any time and in the order they occur to the interviewer before the interview takes place, the cards are sorted into chronological, thematic or other order.
When a number of interviews are conducted on a closely related topic (as when the Provincial Archives interviewed all cabinet ministers who had served prior to 1972) it is a good idea to compile the question set for the initial interview in colour-coded sections. Questions on topic A would be on white cards, questions on topic B on blue cards, and so on. For subsequent interviews, a question set will be much easier to put together, with large groups of questions drawn from the previous set.
The form and content of the questions are extremely important. The memories an interviewee selects are influenced by the format and tone of the question which can introduce erroneous information into the interviewee’s account or may even alter the memory of the event.
Interviews which seek very specific information or answers from different interviewees which can then be compared or quantified must have a more structured approach. A precisely worded question set may be essential so that questions are exactly the same for each interviewee. This questionnaire approach has limitations since people do not always understand the question in the same way, nor answer in a way that can be compared. But its greatest shortcomings is that it inhibits descriptive and non-conforming answers. It is a good idea to supplement standardized questions with some that allow for open-ended responses. Questionnaires may yield some fine historical statistics but they make poor oral history.
Stressing one type of question can adversely shape the interview. Closed questions will yield too many yes or no answers while too many open-ended questions can result in an interview which lacks purpose and direction. Negative or challenging questions can mar an interview by forcing interviewees into a defensive position in which they feel threatened and less willing to answer. A public figure may tolerate or even enjoy probing, challenging and argumentative questioning, but this technique would probably be inappropriate for a person who has never been interviewed.
Novice interviewers may be tempted to compose a finely-honed set of questions and follow it slavishly. The compilation of an apparently ideal list may be a good exercise in preparing for the interview, but you should be ready to use it flexibly (or perhaps not at all) depending on the give and take of the actual interview. There are so many variables in and interview that a rigid set of questions may prove detrimental. Insights that might have been gained by spontaneous questions and exploration of tangents are lost. A question set should be used as a guide, not as a rule.
See the work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus on the subject of eyewitness testimony.
- “Describe flu epidemic in Rossland & Silverton.” (extent, casualties)
- “How did the community cope?”
- Effect upon town life, the economy, etc.
- “What type of mining operation at Rossland?” (method of extracting ore, product)
- “What was your father’s job(s) in the mine?“
- Describe conditions underground (air, noise, temperatures, etc.)
- Were there any injuries? Why?
- What were the chief concerns of the union? What is your opinion of the union? (Effective? Opinion of Union Pres. Ed Jones
- “Explain role of union in silicosis scare.”
- Describe camp life at Summit Lake lumber camp (housing, fond, recreation, school, etc.)
- Describe logging operation at Summit Lake. (methods, machinery, transportation)
- Explain why logging company failed.
- What is your memory of the Summit Lake forest fire (1922)? Causes. Efforts to contain. Destruction. Effect on community/economy.
In addition to the classic objective questions of who, what, when and where, questions which invite a more open-ended, descriptive or reflective answers, should also be used. Questions which begin: “Describe …” , “Tell me about …”, “Explain or expand on …”, “Compare …”, or questions which evoke the senses (What did you see. hear, feel, taste or even smell) are more likely to trigger the richly descriptive anecdotes which are the strength of oral history. Interviewers have had great success with questions such as:
“Take me on an imaginary walk around your farm at the time you were a little girl.”
“What would I have seen on my first day underground at that mine?”
“If you walked up one side and down the other of the main street of your town what would you have seen and who would you have met?”
Examples of Closed and Open-Ended Questions
It is also important not to suggest a required answer in the wording of your question. In psychological jargon this is called the “demand characteristic.” In a courtroom, a lawyer might be accused of leading the witness – in oral history interviewing it is simply bad practice in that it precludes a full frank answer. Below are some examples.
|Open-ended or evocative
|Where were you born?
|What do you remember about the place where you were born?
|Where were your parents born?
|What did your parents tell you about their lives?
|Did your family have gatherings?
|Describe your family gatherings
|What holidays did your family celebrate?
|How were holidays celebrated in your family?
|Was religion important to your family?
|Tell me about religious observances in your family?
|When did you finish school?
|How did your formal education end?
|How did you travel to Canada?
|What were conditions like on your journey to Canada?
|When did you arrive in Canada?
|What did you notice first when you arrived in Canada?
|Where did you first work when you left school?
|Tell me about your experiences finding work when you left school?
|Did you and your friends play games as children?
|Describe some games you played as a child?
|Did many people come here to homestead?
|How did people set about homesteading in this area?
|Were you a soldier in World War I?
|Tell me about your experiences in World War One.
Examples of Leading Questions
|You must certainly have been happy on election night?
|How did you feel on election night?
|Did you come to Canada then?
|What did you do then?
|You didn’t like Mr. X, did you?
|Tell me about Mr. “X”
|What did you think of Mr. Jones’ outrageous behaviour?
|What did Mr. Jones do then?
Some interviewees ask to see the questions in advance. While there is no fixed rule, it is generally advisable to discourage this. Instead, offer them a list of topics to be covered, saving the exact wording of the questions for the interview itself. This enables them to refresh their memory about certain things if they wish but will prevent them from rehearsing answers to specific questions. It is not unusual for interviewees to prepare written answers which they then propose to read. While this is well-meaning, it makes for disastrous oral history since nearly everyone tells a story spontaneously far better than they can read it. This robs the interview of its main strength, the spontaneity of a first-person recollection of events. Of course, if the interviewee makes the submission of a question set in advance a precondition of the interview, then you will have to comply with the request.
Conducting The Interview
Equipment check: Before setting out for each interview, you should check your equipment and ensure (perhaps by use of a checklist) that no small but necessary widget is about to be left behind. The first tape to be used may be put into the machine and it and the box labeled in advance to allow you to set the equipment up more quickly.
Starting an interview: There are different ways of beginning the first interview. Some identifying information at the beginning of the tape itself is very useful to users as well as being one additional safeguard against loss of identification on labels and in files. This introduction should contain the name of the interviewer and the interviewee (with spellings, if necessary), the place and date, and other information if required. This “verbal label” (which can be recorded before going to the interview) should read something like:
This is the second tape of an interview with Lionel James Carson, C-A-R-S-O-N. recorded on February the second, 1984. at his home in New Denver, B.C.. The interviewer is Donald John Robbins.
Other interviews start by giving a brief biography of the interviewee, though this is not usually required in an autobiographical interview. Moreover, many consider it a distraction of major proportions to read this onto the tape in front of the~ interviewee, or even to play it back at the interview Another option is to leave a space at the beginning the tape then insert the information when the interview has been completed.
Some interviewers debate whether the interviewee should be told exactly when the recorder has been turned on. They fear that this, like the introductory comments, may make the interviewee freeze or become very formal, while a more “subtle” beginning encourages them to be informal and spontaneous. However, we discourage anyone from recording without the permission and knowledge of the interviewee. It is better to begin with some casual conversation and for the interviewer to set the appropriate tone without this type of subterfuge.
Getting people to talk: This problem is usually due to an initial period of shyness, but skill will be required if the interviewee develops “mike fright.” This is often a temporary thing and once they begin to talk they gradually gain confidence and become more relaxed. Interviewees who are uneasy should be reassured about the value of their contribution to the historical record and to your study. A good tactic is to begin the interview with simple, obvious questions (birthplace, birth date, parents’ background. or a description of the person’s special qualifications to comment on a particular subject). If you are at ease and able to set the tone, this will influence the interviewee’s view of the process.
While getting the interviewee to loosen up can require skill on your part, getting the interviewee to stop talking or to talk about the desired topic can be even more challenging. Tact and persistence may be necessary because there is no single answer to this problem. Some of the tangents may he valuable, opening new areas of investigation, while others serve the function of allowing interviewees to tell those things which they consider important, even if you don’t.
It is important to deal tactfully with this situation, since cutting them off too abruptly or displaying boredom or irritation will harm the rest of the interview. On the other hand, you must sooner or later direct the interviewee back to the main area of interest. Sometimes this delicate problem may be handled with a few subtle words in a well-timed interjection. Simply prefacing the remark with words such as, “Getting back to …” will be enough of a hint for sensitive interviewees. Failing that, the direct approach will surely work me, “This is interesting but not really relevant here” or “Pardon me, but this is for another interview. Could we get back to …” as a last resort, you can “run out of tape”. Fortunately, cases of mike fright or unwanted loquaciousness are relatively rare and, while everyone occasionally finds a challenging case of one or the other, you can usually overcome the difficulty.
[Oral tradition] may be false or true, but it is always an authentic expression at its author’s personality and culture.
— Henry Glassie, Oral History Review (1971)
Research and Preparation Checklist
Have you examined research sources?
Do you know the major themes, gaps in knowledge and controversies of the topic?
Do you have a sufficient general knowledge of the subject to enable you to explore unexpected topics during the interview or allow you to pick up inconsistencies or discrepancies in the interviewee’s account.
Have you had a successful preliminary interview?
Is the selection of interviewees appropriate to the topic? Are they representative of the group, era or organization being studied?
Has the interviewee been given a clear description of your reasons for wanting an interview and. the planned use of the recordings?
Have you prepared an adequate question set?
Have you examined your own biases and assumptions toward the subject and the interviewee?
Are you able to establish rapport with the interviewee?
An oral history interview should be a dialogue where the interviewee’s side dominates. Nevertheless, the interviewer’s part of this two-way conversation includes much more than simply asking the questions in the order they appear on the question set. The way you raise your eyebrow all communicate something. By reacting positively, you can demonstrate an interest in what is being said. In particular, eye-to-eye contact and appropriate smiles and laughter encourage the interviewee. Experienced interviewers even develop a silent laugh that does not interfere with the words of the interviewee.
While it is best to refrain from passing judgment on what is said, no reaction at all can he unproductive. A simple “Yes, I see” is often all that is needed. However, you must be careful not to constantly interfere with the voice of the interviewee. A steady stream of “Uh-huh” and “Is that so” can be as intrusive as other acoustic problems such as air conditioning or traffic noise.
Even the use, conscious or otherwise, of body language is important. Sitting more or less erect, inclining the body slightly towards the interviewee and maintaining eye contact and an open and friendly visage will give the interviewee the subtle message, “here is someone genuinely interested in my recollections.” While it is possible to overwork this non-verbal communication to the point of obvious insincerity, its significance must be understood.
Controversial subjects: Potentially sensitive topics such as sex, crime, religion and the exercise of power should be explored with caution. These can either be left to the end of the interview or treated in a low-key and matter-of-fact manner when they naturally arise. The approach depends on the nature of the person and the type of material sought.
A related problem occurs when the interviewee freely provides highly sensitive or even potentially slanderous information or asks that the recorder be turned off while a confidence is shared with you. In the first case, you should consider whether or not you could be held liable in a legal action for your part in recording the slander. Consequently, you might wish to place a restriction on part of an interview even if the interviewee has not asked for one. In the second case, you should try to get the interviewee to make their comments on the record by emphasizing the value of such information for future researchers and pointing out the ways in which access to the tape can be restricted to protect confidentiality. Another approach is to discuss the sensitive area beforehand and negotiate how to get the information on tape without endangering or offending someone.
One should adopt the attitude that the tape recorder serves rather than controls the flow of the interview. Accordingly, the tape recorder may be stopped if someone needs to regain composure, clarify a question, or refresh a memory. If the interviewee appears reluctant or uncomfortable, the tape recorder can be stopped and the difficulty discussed. It may even be preferable to erase a question or answer and start again.
Finding “The Truth:” The exploration of discrepancies in the interviewee’s story can usually best be accomplished in an indirect way. In most cases, the interviewee will not have set out to deceive you or distort the historical record but will merely have forgotten the exact details or remembered them incorrectly. You can ask the same question in several ways or have the interviewee discuss the same topic from different perspectives (their own role, chronology, attitudes, motives and feelings, descriptions of other people and their roles.
It is not enough to know what happened, we must also know what people think happened.
— J. and E. M. Wilkie, Elitelore
Other factors being equal, a number of one or two hour interviews are better than a single long session. Long interviews lead to exhausted interviewers and interviewees who are more likely to make mistakes and less likely to expand on important topics. Multiple sessions allow interviewees to think more about the topics that are being covered. Similarly, you will have time to consider some of the points that have been raised and prepare questions to clarify or expand them if necessary. There is no value in rushing through an interview when patience and a slower pace will yield better results.
Interviewing more than one person: What about interviewing two or more people at one time, as is frequently suggested? In general, we find that the problems outweigh the advantages. The problems include: difficulty in identifying who is speaking at a particular moment; getting several people’s voices adequately covered by only one or two microphones; people talking simultaneously; and having the interview degenerate into a series of contradictions and disputes or an extended “in joke.” On the other hand a small group of interviewees may stimulate one another into producing a truly marvelous recording. Caution is the key; you must use discretion in suggesting or accepting this type of interview situation.
Special locations and props: You should consider recording the interview at a spot appropriate to the subject matter. For instance, we have had excellent success in interviewing a politician in the legislative chamber where he served for many years. His reminiscences gained vitality and immediacy as he recalled successes and defeats with precision and piquancy. An interview could be recorded at an old family home, at the scene of a historic event, or any other appropriate location. The aim should be to gain the flavour of “actuality” recording while shaking the interviewee out of standard ways of thinking about and discussing certain events.
The use of’ props such as photographs, maps, films, or sound recordings, may result in an improved reminiscence. For instance, showing the interviewee a photograph of his or her parents or playing a tape recording of their voices might result in an excellent oral recollection. Playing a politician a recording of a former opponent making a provocative statement might also produce an interesting and worthwhile response. You should be wary of turning the interview into a multimedia extravaganza, however, and you should be careful to document your activities in this regard. Notes should be kept along with the recording which will indicate what props were used in the interview so they may, if necessary, be examined later by users of the recording. Copies of the photographs (or at least instructions as to where they may be found) should be kept in the documentation file accompany each recording.
Photographs: Taking photographs of the interviewee at the time of the interview can add valuable information about an interview and might one day prove extremely valuable to a future user of the interview. A number of oral history projects have included this procedure as a regular part of the interview process. Another approach is for an artist to make sketches of the interviewee and the interview situation.
Recording precise information: One widely recognized problem with oral history is the fact that, in certain situations, it lacks precision. A couple of examples will illustrate this point. If the interviewee says, “I was shot right here,” the statement will be accompanied by a gesture so that the location is perfectly clear to the interviewer, but not to a later listener. If the interviewee says that his friend was “Derek McDonald,” you might be unsure whether it was the Derek McDonald or Derrick, Deryk, Darrick, MacDonald, Macdonald, or MacDonnell. In these cases, you must ask for descriptions which will be clearly understood by a listener. The interviewee might be asked to spell proper names for both clarity of identification and as an aid in future transcription. To avoid the “spelling bee syndrome,” some interviewers collect these ambiguities throughout the interview and clarify them all at once in the form of notes which are filed with the Interview.
The facts that you and your interviewee have in your heads will be of no value to future users of the tape. If the interviewee mentions something about which you have been previously informed off the tape, you should tactfully clarify the information. Special terms should be explained. “Gurdies” may be familiar to fishermen and “hi-ballers” to loggers but may not be to future users of the recording.
Monitoring sound quality: During the interview you should regularly check that the tape recorder is operating properly and that the meters show appropriate responses to the voices. After the first 10 minutes of recording or so play back a few seconds of the recording. This not only ensures that the recording is being properly made but might also identify any previously unnoted acoustical problems.
A nervous interviewee will sometimes fidget with the microphone or the cord, or make some other nervous and noisy gesture near the microphone. While you may be reluctant to point these things out to an already nervous subject, it is imperative that this be done. If you have properly paved the way for the production of a high quality sound recording, there should be no problem. The ideal solution is to have a technician present for the recording who can be responsible for equipment and sound quality, but this is seldom possible, and you must do the best job possible on your own.
Ending the interview: At the end of an interview it is a good idea to end the specific questioning and ask the interviewee a few general and positive questions “How do you feel now about your long career as a locomotive engineer?”. Ask if they have anything to add to the interview, giving them a few moments to think about any additions “Is there anything you would like to add or any topic we haven’t discussed?” ending the interview in this way helps to reinforce the bond that has been established between you and interviewee.
While this synopsis on the interview has covered a number of opportunities and pitfalls of interviewing, it is far from a definitive discussion. The only way to become a good interviewer is to actively work at it. Just as all interviewees are different, so too are all interviewers. It serves no purpose to dream of producing flawless interviews, they don’t exist. It is better to think of an interview as raw material containing some inappropriate questions, repetitions and tangents that will be ignored or edited out by a user. As an interviewer, you should concentrate on getting a dynamic and complete interview rather than nervously worry about a flaw here and there. Develop your own style that is flexible enough for any interview situation while still suiting you. This, combined with thoughtful preparation and practice will make you a successful interviewer.