Last weekend I attend the first session of a two-part workshop on recording oral history interviews, sponsored by the Palo Alto Historical Association. The session was excellent and I look forward to the second part next week where we will focus on recording technology. Below are some of the things that I learned about preparing for an interview.
Creating a serious, oral history recording isn’t a task to be taken lightly. Preparations made for the interview will ensure that you end up with a high quality product that can be used for your own projects and for generations to come as a research tool, a historical document and even a family heirloom.
Who will you interview and what will the interview be about?
These questions will be answered based on the type of project that you are undertaking. Are you interviewing a family member to record their memories for posterity or are you interviewing a witness to history that will be a primary source for your PhD dissertation? The type of project will dictate the way that you approach the interview, the questions you will ask and how many sessions and interviewees you will be engaging with.
When and where will you conduct the interview?
A good time to conduct interview is in the morning. People are more alert before noontime and a morning interview won’t interfere with lunch and later plans of the interviewee. Most sessions shouldn’t last longer than 1-2 hours, and if it is necessary and possible, future sessions can be scheduled. The location should be one that is most comfortable for the interviewee, perhaps their living room, but you should also make sure the environment isn’t noisy, which would affect the quality of the recording.
How will you conduct the interview?
You will have to decide what kind of recording equipment you will use, whether it is a digital video camera, an audio recorder or just a pen and pencil. These determinations will be based on your goals. As far as conducting the interview, the subject matter will influence how this happens, but as a general rule it is good to meet with the interviewee beforehand to discuss the interview and to prepare questions for them that can be edited or enhanced prior to the event.
These are just some questions to get you thinking about conducting an oral history interview. Next time I’ll discuss some sample topics and give you ideas for what questions you might ask and how to conduct the interview.
Have you ever conducted or witnessed an oral history interview? How was your experience?