Taking Oral Histories: A Different Type of Interviewing Skill


One of my 2016 New Year’s resolutions was to try one different thing to improve my writing skills each month. So the last week of January found me attending an Oral History 101 workshop at The History Center in Tompkins County with about forty other people.

Here are a few things I learned from presenter John Lewis:

  • Oral histories are a way to gather data we can’t get any other way. However, they don’t stop there. A really good oral history collection should allow a historian to make links, associations, and connections that no one saw before.
  • As with any interview, an oral history requires some research before you even sit down with your subject for the first time. Lewis explained that without this background, you won’t be able to recognize key nuggets of new information or experience those “Aha!” moments during the interview.
  • Listening to, and really hearing, the person you’re speaking with is key. At the same time be aware of nonverbal cues (i.e. body language, pauses). You can always circle back to a topic or question that you feel wasn’t answered fully.
  • Before you begin, jot down a few field notes such as where the interview takes place, the date and time, the subject’s appearance and demeanor, and if anyone else was present. Make sure that the place you’re conducting the interview is comfortable for the interviewee.
  • Be transparent.  Tell the person whose history you’re taking the type of information you’re collecting, how it will be used and under what circumstances, and who else will have access to it. If your subject hesitates or seems uncomfortable, it’s best not to move forward at that time.
  • It’s essential to be very comfortable with the recording equipment you’re using. Have a backup (like your Smartphone or even pen and paper) in case of a malfunction.
  • At the interview, review how you did. Conducting oral history interviews can involve years of practice. Identify any mistakes you made and try not to repeat them next time. It’s especially important not to react, verbally or nonverbally, to what the person says as this may cut the interview short or inhibit the conversation. Try to look neutral, safe, and supportive at all times. One thing you can do is use silence as a way to elicit more information.

Like me, Lewis finds Studs Terkel, bestselling author of many diverse books of oral history, including Working, The Good War, and Division Street: America, a standout oral historian. If you haven’t read his work, check him out.

Or, if you have a favorite oral historian, let me know!

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