A Helpful Manual For Community Oral Historians
"Tradition-bearers are living links in the historical chain, eye witnesses to history, shapers of a vital and indigenous way of life. They are unparalleled in the vividness and authenticity they can bring to the study of local history and culture." Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Folkloris
Guidelines and Suggestions
Interviews are setup and conducted around the following central point: The interviewee has the information, which you the interviewer do not have. Therefore gaining permission to interview people must be done in a sensitive way. Bear in mind that interviewees are doing you a favour by giving up their time and telling their stories. By stressing that your project is contributing to a shared heritage of the community, you are more likely to get a co-operative response from potential interviewees.
Interview Reminder List
1. Assemble your equipment. The recording capacity of your phone may be sufficient if the actual recording can be emailed;
2. Carry large envelopes for borrowed and labelled artefacts such as photos;
3. Compile a list of questions;
4. Practice interviewing with a friend for an hour;
5. Make a personalized checklist of things you must remember to do before, during, and after the interview;
6. Confirm your appointment a day or two before the interview;
7. Ensure that the interviewee speaks English or that you speak his/her language;
8. On the day of the interview, give yourself extra time to get there;
9. Interview and record in a quiet place. When setting up, listen for a moment. Make adjustments, such as stopping the pendulum on the tick-tock clock and closing the door on the noisy traffic;
10. Carry a small token or gift if the interviewee is elderly;
11. Make sure the interviewee understands the purpose of the interview and how you intend to use it. This is not a private conversation;
12. Start each recording with a statement of who, what, when, and where you are interviewing;
13. Listen actively and intently;
14. Speak one at a time;
15. Follow up your current question thoroughly before moving to the next;
16. Usually ask questions open enough to get "essay" answers unless you are looking for specific short-answer "facts";
17. Start with less probing questions;
18. Ask more probing questions later in the interview;
19. Wrap up the interview with lighter talk. Do not drop the interviewee abruptly after an intense interview;
20. Be aware of and be sensitive to the psychological forces at work during the interview- for example, in our hyper successful Khoja Community, elderly people do not like to speak about what they perceive as failure-such as a business failure or bankruptcy that may have forced a move to a different town etc.
21. Limit interviews to about one to two hours in length, depending on the fatigue levels of you and your interviewee;
22. Make a photo of any important photos or document that the person shows you;
23. Immediately forward an electronic copy of the oral interview as an attachment to email@example.com;
24. Have the interviewee sign the release form before you leave; Otherwise, you will have to return before it can be used;
25. After the interview, make field notes about the interview;
26. Write a thank-you note;
27. Go back for another interview if necessary;
28. Analyse your interview.
1. While setting up and doing the interview, try to present yourself in a confident, but humble and respectful manner. The more you can consult with interviewees about the project, the better.
2. In general, have a list of topics in mind, not specific questions, word-for-word, and not a specific sequence. You may, however, want to have a start-up list of questions to get your interviewee and yourself comfortable before you change to your topic list.
3. Do plan the topic and form of your first substantial question after the "settling down" phase. Ask a question that will prompt a long answer and "get the subject going."
4. Ask easy questions first, such as brief biographical queries. Ask very personal or emotionally demanding questions after a rapport has developed. End as you began, not with bombshells, but gently with lighter questions.
5. Ask questions one at a time.
6. Allow silence to work for you. Wait.
7. Be a good listener, using body language such as looking at the interviewee, nodding, and smiling to encourage and give the message, "I am interested."
8. If necessary, use verbal encouragement such as "This is wonderful information!" or "How interesting!" Be careful, however, not to pepper the interview with verbal encouragement such as "uh-huh," said at the same time that the interviewee is speaking.
9. Ask for specific examples if the interviewee makes a general statement and you need to know more. Or you might say, "I don't understand. Could you explain that in more detail?"
10. Ask for definitions and explanations of words that the interviewee uses and that have critical meaning for the interview. For example, ask a shopkeeper what he means by the nyundo . How was it used? What was its purpose? Get explanations for non-English words.
11. Rephrase and re-ask an important question several times, if you must, to get the full amount of information.
Typical Problems in Oral History Interviews
1. is afraid of the recording equipment.
2. doesn't believe she has anything of value to tell you, and doesn't understand why you would want to interview her.
3. doesn't remember.
4. has a series of stock stories that he has developed and is used to telling, almost according to a script. This interviewee is not about to let you deviate from his script.
5. is not used to telling her or his story publicly and needs much coaxing and reinforcement. This person needs questions to get warmed up and more questions to keep going.
6. does not feel comfortable talking to you about the topics you have in mind..
7. meanders through the story, and not according to the beginning-middle-end model that you have in your mind. The memories have a form other than linear time and you have to figure out how to allow the narrator to tell these memories in a way that makes sense to both teller and listener.
8. is afraid to give private or personal information and thus gives you information that will preserve his or her public "mask."
9. prefers or is used to building and sharing a story with others in a group rather than telling a story solo.
1. is too nervous to think calmly and clearly about what to say next.
2. is disorganized.
3. is not really listening to what the interviewee is trying to say.
4. has expectations about what she or he wants to hear and is closed to other avenues of inquiry.
5. appears critical to the interviewee.
6. is from a different class or ethnic group than the interviewee and so is behaving and speaking in a socioeconomic "foreign language."
1. is too faint.
2. contains noise that overrides or confuses the voices.
3. has more than one person speaking at once.
4. is distorted.
REMEMBER: You are part of a creative effort whose results will live for generations. Your sacrifice of time and effort will be noted on KhojaWiki.org forever.