Oral History Interviewing

Oral history interviewing is a natural process really.

We all grew up listening to the stories our parents and granparents told. We'd ask our parents, grandparents and other relatives questions and then sit back and listen to the stories.

Oral history interviewing is the process of gathering these stories and preserving them.

We worry about "doing it right" to the point of paralysis. Don't fall into this trap.

My experience conducting oral history interviews has been with my parents, in-laws and then informal "interviews" with interesting people that I've met along the way.

Many of the stories that our parents told were stories that we'd heard before. We were happy to be getting those recorded finally. But even more exciting, were the stories told that we had never heard before.

We wondered if we would have ever heard these stories if not for sitting down and formally just doing oral family history.

...And you know something else? Both of our parents loved the time spent reminiscing . Once they got started talking ... they had a great time and reveled in their memories.

Tips For Conducting a Successful Oral History Interview

     1. Before interviewing anyone, give advance warning. Interviewers should explain what they want to do, why they want to do it, and why a person is important to them and their research.

    2. An interviewer should be prepared before the interview by finding out about a relative. Where does this person fit into the family? What documents might he or she have? What other genealogical items might this person have?

    Whom did this person meet that no one else knew, or whom might he or she remember best? Where did this person live? As much information as possible should be gathered ahead of time about this person's relationship to everyone in the family.

    3. Interviewing requires structure, so questions should be thought out beforehand. List questions on a sheet of paper, organized by subject. An easy way is to organize chronologically beginning with the early years.

    4. Summarize what's already known so that the interviewee can verify the facts. Then ask for more detail.

    5. Remember, ask open-ended questions. "What do you remember most about your first apartment?" or "Tell me about your relationship with your sisters" may yield something unexpected and wonderful.

    6. Use a recording device but don't depend on it solely. A small recorder usually doesn't disturb anyone, and it catches every bit of information, including the way interviewees sound and exactly how they answer questions.

    However, these devices can always malfunction or run out of power, so a backup notebook is a necessity.

    7. During the interview, write down names and dates, and double-check them with the interviewee. Facts are important, but the most important information interviewees offer are their stories.

    Try to capture not only the way they talk but their colorful expressions.

    8. Begin with easy, friendly questions. Leave the more difficult or emotional material for later in the interview, after trust has been established. If things aren't going well, an interviewer should save difficult questions for another time.

    9. Also, begin with questions about the interviewee. Get some background information about him or her. And when asking for dates, relate them to the interview.

    10. Bring family photographs to the interview and use them during it. Look for photos, artwork, or documents that will help jog the interviewee's memory. Ask the interviewee to describe what's going on.

    "Do you remember when this was taken? Who are the people? What was the occasion? Who do you think took the picture?"

    11. Don't be afraid of silence. Silence is an important part of interviewing, and it can sometimes lead to very interesting results.

    Because people find silence uncomfortable, they often try to fill it if the interviewer doesn't, and, in doing so, they may say something that they might not have otherwise.

    12. Allow interviewees time to ponder their thoughts. Asking interviewees to think back on things they may not have considered in years is a challenge. Calling up these memories may spark other thoughts, too.

    13. Be ready to ask the same question in different ways. People don't know how much they know, and rephrasing a question can give more information.

    14. Ask to see any family treasures belonging to the interviewee. When the interviewee brings out an heirloom, ask them to describe it.

    What is it? How was it used? Who made it? Who gave it to them? Ask if there are any stories connected with it, or any documents.

    15. Be sensitive. Sometimes people become emotional talking about the past. They may remember relative’s long dead, or forgotten tragedies.

    If an interviewee is upset by a memory, the interviewer should either remain silent, or quietly ask, "Is it all right if we talk some more about this? Or would you rather not?"

    People frequently feel better when they talk about sad things. Give the interviewee the choice of whether or not to go on.

    16. Try not to interrupt. If the interviewee strays from the subject, let him or her finish the story and then bring them back on track. Not interrupting makes the conversation friendlier, and may lead to something unexpected.

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