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Tips For A Successful Oral History Interview (Part 2 of 2)

Oral histories are only as successful as the interviews it takes to make them. Unlike in a conversation, the interviewer may have to lead the interviewee back to the main point, without hurting his or her feelings.


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Oral histories are only as successful as the interviews it takes to make them. In normal conversation, both people talk. Ideas are exchanged. Each person contributes information. The talk flows in unpredictable ways. But interviews are different.

In an interview, one person has a goal–to obtain information from another person. The interviewer wants the interviewee to feel comfortable, yet direct the conversation to certain points.

Unlike in a conversation, the interviewer may have to lead the interviewee back to the main point–without hurting his or her feelings. This can be difficult, but practice helps develop good interviewing skills. These tips will help:

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 tape recorder 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, tape recorders have a way of stopping just when there's important information–without any sign to the interviewer. 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 interviewees bring

out an heirloom, they should be asked 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 relatives 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.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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