It is essential to recognize the hopeful simplicity, and potential complexity, involved in a single oral history interview.
For comprehensive step-by-step necessities which every oral history practitioner should be familiar, read: Library of Congress.
For research and best practice journal articles: save yourself, and everyone else, some time, energy, and careful attention: visit OHA’s Web Guides To Doing Oral History page.
Boulder Public Library’s Maria Rogers Oral History Project conducts research and interviews with excellent post-production process results. Get used to the facts: if you want the best, then roll up your sleeves and prepare for many hours of digital labor.
Remember: best practices when conducting interviews will always be vital to academics, independent scholars, and general enthusiasts. As your project unfolds, keep this in mind when meeting narrators. Their friends and family members may be future narrators, too. In a nutshell, what do you bring to the table as processing interviewer?
At all times: narrators should have open access to the information gathered from friends, family and colleagues; however, in my experience most focus their energy upon the interview process itself.
Transparency, honesty, and proper confidentiality practice always helps rather than hinders project success. Process guidelines such as those outlined below should be considered for every narrator.
That said, each step has particular requirements, and sometimes random demands. By no means should deadlines or unnecessary stress be placed upon potential narrators. The interviewer’s responsibility includes organization of the best experience possible for each and every person the project makes contact with.
Respect, confidentiality, and, most important, comfortable and gracious hosting goes a long way to make responsive, talkative, and great interview experiences.
Are you listening, or merely recording?
- Contact potential narrators via phone and personal letter of interest
- Explain the reason for the interview, include key topics of discussion
- Ask basic information, like mailing address, and general biographic history
- Avoid date-of-birth questions unless you’re working for a group whose identity might uncover vital research i.e. labor, government, or corporate history
- Explain in detail where the interview will be conducted, at what specific meeting time, and how the recording will be archived for future use
- The requirement of the oral history release form should be understood by all narrators and related parties before meeting for an interview
- Research, investigate, and organize all information to be collected well-in-advance of the recording date
- A great experience is a result of well-prepared interview questions, and sharp research skill on behalf of the interviewer
- Send a reminder to the narrator prior to the scheduled meeting. In fact, speak with them as much or little as each narrator might require. In some cases with guided detail about the project while, in other cases, with professional distance to allow for reflection
- Although a phone call is convenient and often satisfactory, a follow up letter of intention is an effective method to help narrators prepare their story within their own creative capacity
- The more time narrators have to consider an interview, the better. That said, good timing on behalf of the interviewer is recommended. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to feel prepared for interviews with distant or fleeting narrators. Some narrators are ready to talk the day you first contact them. Whatever the case, communicate as clearly and openly as possible
- The day of the interview, have prepared all recording equipment well-before
- The day of the interview, have prepared all recording equipment well before
- The day of the interview, have prepared all recording equipment well beforehand –– get it right before leaving the house, and eat a good breakfast in case lunchtime turns to the four O’clock hour!
- If conducted inside the narrator’s home, expect at least 30 minutes of set up time
- Be sure to sound check equipment by using the narrator’s natural conversation. This takes practice, so make time to know your recording devices.
- Allow time as necessary to present the release form for signature before sound set-up. Remember: researchers should consider the emotional gravity placed upon the narrator. It is best to make narrators aware of the importance of informed consent, the time necessary to review and handle forms, and your request for a signature after the interviewing experience concludes
- Please do not follow the advice of any book, blog, or article that says to handle informed consent signature forms before the interview
- Signing documents before an interview — in my limited, babe-like experience — is the worst way imaginable to begin an oral history interview
- Shared Authority, as always, saves the day!
- Conduct the interview. I’ve chosen to limit my interviews to about 120 minutes dependent on the narrator’s comfort. If you need to, request a second interview
- Always be aware of narrator energy, and their interest in specific questions for follow up
- Never interrupt narrators unless they are obviously speaking out of nervousness or anticipation of storytelling. Likewise, as long as narrators are comfortable: remain silent until the next question. Practice listening
- Always be ready for follow up questions based on new information not available in original research
- As the interview concludes, allow 10-15 minutes of wrap up time (or more if needed), and a couple of key questions of closure. Never wait until the end of the interview for serious or emotional questions.
- Likewise, research use of the gentle pause of journalism before asking too many questions at beginning, middle, or ending of the interview.
- If a narrator does not give consent, the recording should be handled according to their immediate wishes, including deletion. Deal with it, podcast Superstar!
- If the project calls for it, request to photograph narrators at the conclusion of the interview, and remind them that photographs are archived as part of their contribution. Also, offer the option for them to share a photograph of their preference. Maybe they want to be remembered for the strong, independent, and wise-self that they have in mind.
After the interview:
- ASAP Store WAV files in a secure hard drive location
- Scan copies of the original release form, and include photographs to each sound recording file location
- ASAP Export WAV files into Mp3 format (The Access File after this point) for post production sound editing
- NEVER EDIT ORIGINAL WAV FILES (Store and leave master files alone)
- Create 1-2 CDs (80 min max per CD) as part of a narrator Thank You packet. At least one copy of the recording should be made available. Although some projects may choose not to provide CD copies, I strongly advise against neglecting this small inconvenience of post-production
- Make sure narrators have access at all times
- Another option allows for Mp3 sound files to be added to inexpensive USB flash drives should narrators have access to a personal computer
- ASAP Catalog, label, and archive all physical and born digital files. This I cannot stress enough. For further reading, consult Metadata: Best Practices for Oral History Access and Preservation.
Consider final documentation, which includes pre-planned transcription, and the sound recording’s potential for future access and research.
As a final note, explore other avenues for names and contact information of potential narrators that may add further value to a completed interview.
Make contact with your narrator and other family members to give thanks, clarify finding aids created for the sound recording, and as general notification of collection of the archival material. This final step can include a letter of appreciation, and informational materials about current projects and upcoming events.
Remember: narrators should be able to contact interviewers, and the archival institutions where their recorded interviews reside, forever.
There are exceptions to longevity, of course. It should be clear that interviewers are responsible for professional distance as much as project transparency.