Thursday, April 10, 2014

Rachel's Quick and Dirty Oral History Tips

A lot of the posts on this blog have covered our reactions to individual interviews, but we haven't really talked much about the process itself. In light of that, here's a brief how-to guide for the aspiring oral historian:

  1.  Come prepared! Do your research and make sure you know what you're talking about. I usually aim for having some knowledge of the historical context--the public history--as well as a little bit about the person themself--the private history. But also be careful to avoid thinking that your research makes you the expert. Remember, you're here to learn from people who speak from experience, so let them talk! Also make sure to have any legal documents or release forms prepared, and be able to explain them. And, of course, being prepared means having your equipment (and backups!) and making sure everything works.
  2. Have a plan... Write out a list of questions you want to cover, and try to build the structure of the conversation in your mind. That way, you'll be able to get the information you need even if the conversation takes an unexpected detour. 
  3. ...But go with the flow. Remember, it's a conversation, not an interrogation. This person is sharing his or her knowledge willingly, so reciprocate! Be calm, friendly, and polite; don't be afraid to crack a joke or two to set your interviewee at ease. Make sure they see it as an equal, friendly exchange rather than a brusque business transaction.
  4. Keep an ear out. The whole purpose of doing oral history interviews is to record people's voices in a way that can be preserved and shared, so make sure it's worth it! Not a lot of research can be done from an audio file that's so full of background noise you can't hear the person speaking. It's easier to ask your interviewee to pause for a minute while the background noise dies down than to try to edit it out without losing the person's voice. 
  5. Keep in touch! Let the person know you appreciate their time and their willingness to share. Keep them in the loop regarding what happens to their interview. If you can, burn the edited audio to a CD and send them a copy. If you write a paper or stage an exhibit, tell them! They'd probably love to hear about it or attend any events--people like hearing where their voices end up.

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