the interviewer knows the questions to ask, a list of witnesses should
be compiled. If the information needed is about one person, neighbors,
friends, co-workers, employers, and family members should be on the list.
The oral historian must decide which people are most likely to have the
Once one or more people are selected to be interviewed, they must
be contacted so that mutually agreeable appointments can be scheduled.
The interviews should last one to two hours. If time and distance make
additional visits difficult to schedule, single interviews that are
several hours long can be scheduled. During long interviews, breaks
every hour or hour and a half may be needed to avoid fatigue. Breaks
also give the witnesses a chance to think about what has been said and
perhaps remember additional information.
The next step is to learn about the witnesses. When were they born?
Where were they raised? What are their occupations? The interviewer
should spend sufficient time learning about the informants to be able
to best interpret the answers received as the interviews proceed. Time-lines
can be constructed from the interviewees' birth to the present. Key
international, national and local events can be written in on the time-lines.
Events in interviewees' personal and family history could also be added.
History books and newspapers from the past are great sources for historical
events; telephone calls or letters to family members or friends will
provide details about each informant's personal history.
Is the sequence in which questions are asked during an interview important?
Yes, because most people remember facts, faces, events, smells, tastes
and feelings in relation to when they were experienced or to the environments
in which they were encountered. Because the interviewer is normally
ignorant of events or environments in a respondent's life, it seems
best to lead people through their life stories from past to present
or from the present back into the past. Time thus triggers the recall
response: "What happened when ..."
Questions should be short and simple. For example, ask "Do you remember
your sister Anne's wedding?" instead of "Do you remember your sister's
wedding and who the best man was and where the wedding breakfast was
held and how your parents felt about the match?" The witness in an interview
may become tense when too much is demanded. Trying to remember several
parts of one question may be so distracting that the interviewee overlooks
important details when responding.
Oral historians are like Boy Scouts, always prepared. The interviewer's
toolkit should include a microcassette recorder, several spare tapes,
spare batteries, a still or video camera, pads of paper, pens and pencils.
Memory joggers such as photographs, old letters, and copies of newspapers
from the past are also helpful. A small treat or gift is also a good
way to thank people for being generous enough to let you interview them.
The appointment has been set. The preparations are complete. Research Tip #11
will explain how to conduct an effective interview.