Creating Oral Histories
Family history interviews are a good way to capture memories before they are lost. They help you verify and preserve names and dates—the sort of information you would typically record on a family group sheet or pedigree chart. These interviews are also one of the best ways to preserve a wealth of stories, testimonies, thoughts, and feelings. The process of doing a family history interview is really very simple and you will learn it best by practicing. Most people feel very comfortable with it after only one or two interviews. This lesson will help you gain enough confidence to conduct your first interview. The information is general, and you should adapt it to your individual circumstances.
Whom to Interview
Your first task is to decide whom to interview and why. You may want to interview someone who can provide information about a particular ancestor. Or you may want to do more general interviews with perhaps your oldest living relative, another member of y our family, your town’s oldest resident, a neighbor, or anyone who may have ties to or information about your family. You should usually conduct interviews one on one. Some situations, however, such as extended family gatherings, may provide a unique opportunity to capture the memories of several people at one time. In this sort of situation, you might simply set up your video or tape recorder and introduce a discussion topic to the group, such as inviting them to share their favorite memories of Grandma. As the group shares their memories, individuals will tend to remember more than they would if they were interviewed alone. Keep in mind that you may not always be able to distinguish who is saying what on the recording on the group session, particularly if you only have an audio recording. And group noise may make parts of the interview inaudible. You can compensate for those disadvantages by using more than one recording device and by identifying the different voices as soon as possible after the recording session.
Expert Tip: Face-to-face interviews are usually the most effective. If the person you want to interview does not live close to you, however, a telephone interview is an alternative. See appendix A for information about various recording options.
Before the Interview
Once you have chosen one or more people to interview, you need to ask them if they are willing to be interviewed. Explain the purpose of your interview, and what you would like them to do. You could also explain what they will get from the interview, such as a tape recording and a transcription. If they agree to an interview, you can then follow these steps:
Make an Appointment After you have decided whom to interview and that person has agreed to be interviewed, arrange a place where you will both feel comfortable and a time when you will not feel rushed. You want to find a place with minimal distractions in which to hold the interview. The interviewee’s home is often a good place; it may have mementos or other objects that will spark the individual’s memory. One or two hours is generally enough time for an initial interview. Some people will tire easily, however, especially those who are elderly or ill, and several shorter interviews may be more effective.
Make a List of Questions to Ask The type of questions you ask at the beginning of the interview will establish a pattern for your entire interview, so you should plan carefully. The first question or two can be simple to set the interviewee at ease. But other early questions should get the interviewee talking. Once the person is talking, you should interrupt as little as possible. The flow of speech will often generate a series of memories that will build on each other. There are generally three kinds of questions you can ask.
• Open-Ended Questions. Usually the most successful interview comes when the interviewee discusses whatever is most important to him or her. You can lead an interviewee to discuss interests by asking open-ended questions, such as “What are your fondest memories of your mother?” or “How did you meet your husband?” or “What was your greatest challenge as a child?” These questions require more than one or two words to answer and will encourage the interviewee to talk. See appendix B for a list of sample questions.
• Direct Questions. A direct question evokes a short response, usually one or two words. Direct questions are appropriate if you seek specific information. For example, you might ask, “What year was Albert Smith born?” or “Who was his father?” This type of question can help you get good information, but it won’t generate the kinds of thoughts and memories that can come from an interview. They might be good introductory or concluding questions and they might help provide important contextual information, but a successful interview is usually built on openended questions.
Even though the best interview arises from open-ended questions, you can make a list of direct questions you hope to have answered during the interview. Your interviewee may answer them without prompting during the course of the interview. If not, the last few minutes of an interview are a good time to ask a limited amount of direct questions.
• Object-Based Questions. Photos, objects, and heirlooms can serve as an interesting basis for interview questions. For example, during your interview you might show a photo and ask what your interviewee knows about the people in the photo.
Be sensitive about the questions you ask. If you know a certain subject will be upsetting to the interviewee, avoid that subject or approach it carefully. Broach the subject only after you have developed sufficient rapport.
Arrange for Recording Equipment Expensive equipment is not required for oral history interviews. An inexpensive video or tape recorder and microphone are usually all you need. Test the equipment in advance to ensure that it works properly and that you know how to use it. High quality tapes will preserve your interview longer. You should also bring extra batteries or a power cord you can plug in the wall.
Expert Tip: Some people are shy of microphones. Try to obtain a microphone that can be inconspicuously placed on a table in the interview room rather than one that must be held in the hand or spoken into directly.
Make a Checklist
Make a checklist of things to take to the interview, which may include:
• Extra batteries or a power cord for your recording equipment.
• A label for your tape.
• A pen or pencil and paper for note taking and for labeling your audio or video tape.
• Your list of questions.
• Photographs or artifacts that might be useful.
• A pedigree chart or family group record.
• A release form for the interviewee to sign.
• A release form giving your permission to share the content of the interview (see Appendix C.)
At the Interview
At the interview be relaxed and alert. It is best not to spend too much time taking notes. Jot down what you need to remember, but for the most part you should look at the interviewee and listen carefully to what is said. The following recommendations will help you in your interview.
Be on Time You will have a more successful interview if you minimize inconvenience to the person you interview.
Set up a Good Rapport Thank the person you interview for his or her time, and spend two or three minutes chatting before you set up your equipment.
Set up Your Recording Equipment Choose a room where your interviewee is comfortable. To minimize distractions and obtain the best recording possible, avoid rooms with loud ticking clocks or other noises. You also might want to turn off any telephone ringers during the interview. Sometimes wrapping a towel around the microphone will cut down on background noise. (If you use this technique, try it beforehand to ensure it works with your recording equipment.) Be sure to test the microphone before the interview to make sure it works properly.
Record the Details of Your Interview Start your recording with your own voice. Explain who you are, who you are interviewing, what the date is, and where the interview is being conducted. For example: “This is John Doe. I am interviewing my grandfather William Doe. It is October 1, 2008, and we are at grandfather’s house on 8898 South Laredo Drive in Houston, Texas.” You can then test your equipment by playing back what you have just recorded.
Start Asking Your Questions During the interview itself, your job is to help your subject feel comfortable and willing to talk. Once comfortable, most people do not have any problem talking about their life experiences. As you progress with your interview, keep in mind the following points:
• Make a note of anything that may need clarification. Instead of interrupting while your interviewee is talking, make a quick note of things you do not understand and ask for clarification later in the interview.
• Stay alert for signs of fatigue. If the person you are interviewing shows signs of fatigue and is not refreshed by a bathroom break or a drink of water, you may need to finish your interview at a different time.
• Ask final questions. About 10 or 20 minutes before your scheduled time is over, you can direct questions you might have. Also ask about anything you feel needs clarification and how to spell the names of people and places mentioned in the interview.
• Finish up. Immediately label your audio or video tape. Your label should include the same information you provided at the beginning of your interview—your name, the name of the person you interviewed, and the date and place of the interview. Punch out the tabs in your audio or video tape to prevent it from being recorded over. Clear out all your equipment, thank your interviewee, and offer him or her a copy of the interview itself or a transcription. If you would like to do an additional interview, try to schedule it before you leave.
Expert Tip: Don’t be concerned about getting through your list of questions. It is more important that people you interview be allowed to talk about whatever is significant to them. They know more about their life experience than you do and often are better judges of the value of their personal knowledge. Most of all, you want the interview to be a satisfying experience for the person you interview.
After the Interview
Don’t wait too long after the interview to make use of the recording. As time passes, you will begin to forget important details that may help you as you transcribe the recording.
Transcribe the Interview Transcription is important in safeguarding and sharing your work. Audio and video tapes become obsolete much faster than typed documents. They are easily damaged, and the quality of the recording can degrade quickly. If keeping a copy of the original recording is important, be sure to convert the recording to new technologies as they become available.
A transcription machine is helpful when you are transcribing an interview. It allows you to start and stop the recording easily while you write or type. If you do not have a transcription machine available, however, you canmstill transcribe the recording using normal equipment.
Written language is generally quite different from spoken language. People often prefer to see the written record of their words in a grammatical or standard form, even when they did not speak grammatically. They can become quite embarrassed if the transcription shows all their verbal pauses and false starts and stops.
As you transcribe the recording, you do not need to write down every “um” or the other kinds of sounds people make as they talk. After you have transcribed the interview, you should go through the text and edit it to remove the false starts and verbal repetitions that occur in spoken language.
As you edit, however, try to keep those elements that are unique, that make the person’s voice uniquely recognizable.
Make Copies of the Interview Make copies of your interview, and store them in different locations to help preserve them in case of fire or other type of disaster. You will also need to make copies to share with others. When you make copies, use material that is durable, such as acid-free paper, so the copies will last for a long time.
Share Your Interview
If you offered any copies to your interviewee, make sure you share the copies promptly. If your interviewee agrees, and you have obtained a copy of that agreement in writing (see Appendix C), you can also share your interview in many other ways:
• Offer your transcript to your local historical society or university.
• Send a copy to interested family members.
• Publish it on a Web page.
Expert Tip: It is extremely important that you exclude any identifying information on living individuals if you share your interview with anyone other than close family and friends, especially when the interview is shared over the Internet.
There are many ways to do interviews. In fact, your interview does not even have to be conducted orally. You could set up a Web site or blog where family members can record their memories of a beloved ancestor. Or you might set a goal to e-mail a family member just one question a week in order to get to know that person better. The best way to learn how to conduct family history interviews is to practice. With a little experience, you will be able to determine what techniques and technology work best for you. Regardless of how you do it, you are sure to find the process of preserving memories very rewarding.
Willa K. Baum. Oral History for the Local Historical Society. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1987.
Gary L. Shumway and William G. Hartley. An Oral History Primer. Salt Lake City: Shumway and Hartley, 1973.
Cyndi Howells. Cyndi’s List: Oral History. URL: http://www.cyndislist.com/oral.htm
Judith Moyer. Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History. URL: http://www.dohistory.org/on_your_own/toolkit/oralHistory.html
L. Dale Patterson. Doing Oral History. Online: Archival Leaflet Series, the General Commission on Archives and History, the United Methodist Church. URL: http://www.gcah.org/oral.html