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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Staying Alive with Oral History - Part 3

This continues the ideas of my fellow storytellers on the topic of Staying Alive with Oral History

Two storytellers had articles deserving of publishing on this topic.  Part 2 was by Judy Schmidt, of the Ann Arbor Storytellers' Guild.  This is Part 3 with Canadian storyteller, Renee Englott, from Edmonton in Alberta.  Part 4 will be the bibliography including Lynn Rubright's book.

Renee breaks the interview process into three parts: Framing Questions; Tips for Shaping and Conducting an Interview; and After the Interview.

Framing Questions

1. A mix of open and closed question will work best. Too many open ended questions will result in an interview without direction.

Examples of open and closed format for the same questions:
·        Was religion important to your family?
·        Did you serve as a soldier during WWII?

·        Tell me about religious observances in your family…
     ·        What did you do during WWII?
2. Examples of questions that elicit  1. DESCRIPTIVE, 2 NARRATIVE or 3 REFLECTIVE response:

·        1. Describe how the ice was prepared each year….

·        2. What did Mr. X do next?

·        3. Why do you think it was done that way?
3. Sometimes it is a good idea to start out with an open-ended question on a given topic to give the interviewee a chance to decide what to talk about. Then you can ask more specific or closed questions to elicit further information:

·        What was it like to go to King Edward School?
·        What games did you play?
·        Who was your grade 3 teacher?

4. Be as objective as possible in asking questions to avoid suggesting a required or preferred response:
WHO, WHAT, HOW? WHERE? WHY? WHEN? are all objective questions.

5. Ask neutral rather than leading questions:

·        You must have been pleased on election night?
·        You disapproved of dancing after midnight then?
·        Is it true that Mr X was a difficult employer?
·        Where most of these barns built during the 1920s?

·        Tell me how you felt on election night?
·        How did you feel about dancing after midnight?
·        How did Mr. X treat his employees?
·        When were most of these barns built?
6. Negative versus Positive Connotation in word choice – particularly important around sensitive issues. 

Tips for Shaping and conducting an interview 


1.      Chat easily as you set up your equipment efficiently.

2.      Discourage third parties; identify everyone who will be participating if more than one interviewee is unavoidable.

3.      Run a test as you talk to check everything is working and volume is set correctly etc. indicate that the interview is now ready to begin. Leave lead time if using a cassette tape.

4.      Formally start the interview with an introduction: it should state who the interviewer is, (if the interview is on behalf of an organization say so), who the interviewee is, where it is taking place, date giving year. You might consider indicating something of why the interviewee is being interviewed. E.g. “ Mrs. Fornelli was the president of the X Community League for 25 years and the organizer of the X festival in 1965.”

5.      Start out with easy open ended questions. Tell me a little about growing up in X, your family – whatever you think will get the interviewee relaxed and focussed. Sometimes this proves too open ended and it is preferable to start with “Where and when were you born?” This is something that everyone has no hesitation with and it often works to get someone settled into answering questions.

6.      Then move to more general questions to lead you to the focus of the interview.

7.      Ask one question at a time.

8.      Remember that although you may have a definite line of inquiry the questions should be conservational in tone rather than an interrogation!

9.      Refer to your question sheet as you go but reframe your questions and adjust the questions as you go. Avoid asking a question on the list when it has already been answered without being asked, for example.

10.  Clarify chronology occasionally especially if it seems a bit murky – also shows you are paying attention.

11.  Keep note pad close at hand- jot down names, places that you will need to check spelling of later; make a quick note of Q you want to come back to or anything that that occurs to you that you want to ask at an opportune moment later.

12.   Be judicious in deciding when the interviewee is rambling or going off topic, sometimes you need to be patient. The interviewee may bring themselves back.  They may, along the way, raise another whole issue for investigation as they talk. Too abrupt an attempt to bring them back to topic may also diminish rapport.

13.  Try to find a natural break in the conversation before asking the next question.

14.  Make sure you have clear explanations of technical processes – ask someone to repeat if necessary.

15.  Stay present and relaxed. Pay close attention to what is being said; this will produce the best and most relevant questions.

16.  Use photos and documents including news clippings as possible as prompts. Be sure to identify everything verbally on tape. i.e. “clipping from the Edmonton Journal 25 April, 1965 or “Photo number A taken of your mother in January 1945.” Slip this info as an interjection as smoothly as you can. If there is a lot of this material you might explain before the interview begins that you will be doing “this so anyone listen later will know what we are discussing.”

17.  Pause the tape when asked to do so. But try to avoid off tape discussions in the middle of an interview it is distracting breaks the focus and flow and can be hard to restart the tape easily and can lead to mistakes.

18.  Avoid asking questions that make a statement/judgement or conclusion about what the interviewee has said.

19.  Avoid comments on what is being said. Let the interview express feelings; whatever discomfort /urge to share you experience keep it to yourself! Avoid supplying the interviewee with what you think his or her feelings must have been.

20.  Use body language to express surprise, agreement, understanding. Nod, smile, raise an eyebrow, do a silent laugh. The less that is heard from the interviewer on tape the most useful the interview is for later use.

21.  If someone becomes emotional, pause the tape and give them time to regroup before continuing... reset the conversation … “we were talking about…..”  Or conversely, set a new topic, “I’d like to move on and ask you about …..”

22.  Try to keep more sensitive questions towards the end of the interview when trust and rapport has been established.

23.   Be prepared to change subject and clarify information as necessary – (see tip sheet on this).

24.  Keep an eye on the time – if using cassette tapes be aware of 45 minute length of tape. Try to find a natural break in conversation to turn the tape over. Err on the side of too son rather than too late to avoid a sentence being cut off in mid stream. It is better to turn it over your self than have the recorder do it automatically.

25.  One and half hours is generally enough. Make it clear that the interview is about to end. Before we finish up for today I have a couple of last questions….

26.  Make sure to thank the interviewee on tape.

27.  Ask the interviewee to sign the release form which you mentioned before the interview began.

28.  Return to your note pad for any questions/ spellings that are outstanding.

29.  Have tea and let the interviewee know you will be in contact if you have questions or to review the transcript if that is what you are planning to do.

After the interview….Follow up and paper work!

1.      Make sure you take steps to preserve your interview.  For cassette tapes, push out tab on the corners. For digital, download into your computer immediately. In both cases make a copy and use this for working with, playing back, editing as relevant, and keep the master copy as the archival copy.
2.      Label the cassette/file – name of interviewer, interviewee, date, indicate 1/1 or of 1/2 tapes/files, and give it a number of some sequential sort. Museums use accession numbers that include the year. Eg. 2010 1.1 . The first tape in the first interview of 2010. Therefore 2010 4:2 – would be the second tape of the fourth interview.
3.      Undertake some sort of guide to the interview for quick reference. This might be a subject reference, summary or transcript. Transcripts are very time consuming about 10 hours per one hour recording but give you a verbatim coverage of the tape. An index is exactly that names of places, people subject topics. A detailed summary gives you a little more -some idea of the flow of the conversation. See separate sheet for an example.
4.      If you borrowed photos make copies and return them to the interviewee. If you are working in a museum or representing a public organization or group, you need to use a loan form to note you borrowed and returned the item.
5.      Keep a paper file on your interview labelling with its (Accession) number. You should keep the release form in here, along with a bio or interviewee, some info on the interviewer, any relevant notes on the interview that might remind you or help anyone later to understand the dynamics of the interview. All pieces of paper should have the interview number on them.
6.      Keep your tapes safe/files safe. See sheet on care and handling.

  This series will now conclude with Part 4's bibliography. 

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