journalists appreciate off-the-cuff comments, oral historians are most
successful if their subjects know exactly what will happen during an interview
and are prepared beforehand. It is easy to establish this tone at the
outset by sending the interviewee a copy of the questions that will be
the basis of the exchange, as well as copies of at least some of the photographs,
old letters, or newspapers that will be part of the interview. Before
sending off a copy of the interview questions, the researcher should review
them to ensure they provide the answers he or she is seeking.
The first rule of interviewing is punctuality. Never keep the informant
waiting. After the interviewer has been invited in and is seated with
the subject, it is helpful to discuss the equipment that will be used.
As the tape recorder is shown, it should be turned on so that a few
minutes of conversation can be recorded. The same is true of a video
The interviewer should point out that he or she will also be taking
notes, in case the recorder fails to do its part. After a few minutes
of conversation, the tape recorder or video camera should be rewound
and played back. The witness has an opportunity to hear or see himself
or herself and hopefully feel reassured that there is nothing to fear
or be nervous about as these machines do their work during the interview.
The moments before the interview can also be used to take photographs
of the respondent and his or her surroundings. This get-acquainted time
also provides opportunity to look at some of the photographs or other
memorabilia brought by the interviewer. Perhaps the subject will produce
her or his own photo album. The album or other mementos will help the
respondent remember and may provide the oral historian with new evidence
he or she has not yet seen. This is the right moment to turn on the
recorder and begin the interview.
Experienced interviewers never read their questions. The questions
have been memorized and blend into the conversation. As the interview
progresses, the note pad becomes important. Facial expressions, the
eyes, and other non-verbal expressions are noted. Additional questions
may come to mind that can be jotted down for inclusion when the moment
is appropriate. Reminders of promises made should also be written down,
so that they can be kept rather than forgotten, once the interview is
After the interview has ended, the oral historian should take time
to transcribe the sound or video tape as soon as possible. It will be
much easier to understand the respondent's comments while they are still
fresh in the interviewer's mind. Within a week of the interview, a transcript
should be provided to the interviewee. He or she will then have the
opportunity to correct any errors. At this time he or she can even add
facts that came to mind after the interview or during the reading of
the transcript. After the subject has returned the transcript it is
ready for analysis and verification.
Oral and documentary evidence can be verified using many of the same
methods. Research Tip 12 will provide some ideas to help researchers evaluate
oral and written evidence.