Monday, January 24, 2011

The Art of the Oral History Interview

(Our sixth entry in an ongoing series on preserving memories of loved ones…)

Seven years ago, my sister Jamie interviewed our mother to capture her memories of her youth and the old family stories.  To help refresh Mom’s memory (and to remind herself of the stories that she wanted to capture on the recordings), Jamie wrote and designed a small booklet of family history.

Plainfield Public Library.
According to Joe Da Rold, Director of the Plainfield (NJ) Public Library, this is a good approach to bring to any oral history interview, whether family or community-based.  Advance preparation and research make for a better interview.

In a recent interview, I asked Joe about the challenges of conducting oral history interviews:

Be Prepared
“Of the twenty-five ‘Latinos In Conversation’ and the ‘Historias’ oral histories, the most successful interviews I conducted were the ones where I already knew some details about my subjects’ lives.  The pressure of an interview can be just as great for the interviewer.  Sometimes you can focus so intently on your upcoming question, you can forget to listen to what your interviewee is saying.  Even with a fixed set of questions, the interviewer can get nervous and lose track of where he is.  Being a bit familiar with your guest and remembering the overall focus of your interview will help both of you feel more at ease.”

Faulty Memories
“Years ago I witnessed a 95-year old local artist giving an interview to a television reporter, who had asked her to describe an unusual painting technique that had become her trademark.  Her adult daughter took me aside afterwards and said, ‘That’s not the way she painted.  Mom got confused by the excitement.’”

Beware of Leading Questions
“I once reviewed a transcript for a taping made during our StoryCorps Griot project and it was obvious that the interviewer, who was the adult daughter of the subject, was purposely leading her mother into responses she wanted to hear about racial discrimination.  The mother stopped and said, ‘No, that never happened.’”

Keep Interruptions to a Minimum
“The most likely reason I would ever interrupt the speaker would be if they were inaudible to me or the microphone.  It is very easy to revisit a particular subject by asking for more details.  You never want to embarrass the interviewee.”

© 2010 Lee Price

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