Good oral history isn't just taping someone talking, it takes conscientious research and careful planning at several levels: in deciding the project focus; in selecting persons to be interviewed; in developing appropriate questions to be asked; in learning to become a good interviewer; and in ensuring the oral history donor form and finding aid to the tape are completed. The following are suggestions for achieving a quality product at all of these levels.
Tips for the Interviewer:
- Make sure the oral history project is designed with a distinct sense of what can be accomplished in terms of informational content, quality, and likely value of the project for future research and that the expense and the technical problems involved in the preparation, use, and long-term care of the tape has been considered.
- Choose high quality tapes and reliable and easily operating recording equipment. Use a good quality microphone and invest in special filters that block out extraneous noises. Area broadcasters may be willing to recommend, or perhaps even lend appropriate recording equipment. Practice and be familiar with your equipment ensuring that it is operating properly before the interview. Be prepared with even the best equipment for technical difficulties and have a backup. Always have spare tape, batteries and extension cords available.
- Do your legal and archival homework before the interview! Have an oral history donor and release form which both the interviewer and interviewee sign that donates their taped session to a selected repository, releases all copyright and literary rights to the taped session, and permits unrestricted research and educational use of the interview tapes, transcripts and copies. Do not conduct the interview without a signed donor form in advance.
- Select and train personnel for the oral history project. All interviewers should know as much as possible about the person being interviewed and the subject of the oral history session. A list of interview questions should be developed to assist the interviewer in the session. Start the questions with "Who, When (approximately), Where, How, Why"; Do not ask questions that require just a simple "yes" or "no" answer. Keep the list brief and be flexible enough to add other questions or delete prepared ones during the interview. The list is just an aid to the interviewer, questions should never be read directly off the list.
- Before beginning the interview, record a brief introductory statement that states who you are, who you are talking with, the date, location, and subject of the interview. As you set up your equipment try to make it as unobtrusive as possible and put the interviewee as ease. Bring some photographs, newspaper clippings, or a scrapbook for the interviewee to look through as you are getting your equipment ready. Try to minimize distracting noises such as air conditioners, appliances, fans, radios, televisions, etc. as the recording equipment will amplify sounds you might not normally notice.
- During the interview the interviewer should be attentive, courteous and responsive in a non-verbal way (such as nodding your head and other gestures to let the interviewee know you are listening to what is being said). Make notes as you go along so you can follow up with clarifying questions later. Write down names or words you are not sure of so you can obtain correct spelling or explanation after the session. Allow the interviewee opportunity to think and allow for periods of silence before rushing on to the next question. Remember researchers want to know interviewee viewpoints, not the interviewers.
- Keep track of time during the interview. You don't want to tire the interviewee! Keep the interview to 90 minutes or less. Schedule additional interviews before you leave the session if you feel you don't get all the information the interviewee can provide on the subject.
- After the interview, carefully label the tape(s) with interviewer and interviewee names, date, location, and topics covered. Be sure you have the signed oral history donor and release form and thank the interviewee for his/her time and participation.
- Make sure the tape will be transcribed and have a finding aid constructed and preparations are made for the preservation and duplication of the tape.
- Make sure the tapes are properly stored and the playback equipment is functioning the way it should before allowing research access to the tapes.
For more information about protecting your documentary heritage, please contact:
The Rochester Regional Library Council
390 Packetts Landing
Fairport, NY 14450