Research Tip 10: Preparing to Interview a Witness

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG
Once 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 facts needed.

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.

About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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