Oral Support

By Erika Dreifus Premium

Talk About it.
First, take a moment to think about what “oral history” really is. In one sense, as the Baylor University Institute for Oral History’s Workshop on the Web <> notes, it’s an interviewing process. But it’s also a product, because in the end, you have an audio- or videotape of that interview — you’ve created a new historical document.

Great. But why should anyone bother to undertake this work? In Like It Was: A Complete Guide to Writing Oral History (Teachers & Writers Collaborative), Cynthia Stokes Brown notes that the information gleaned from oral history interviews may not be available elsewhere. Even better, interviews are opportunities to strengthen family relationships and explore your ancestors’ lives — a process that can be an enjoyable bonding experience for you and your interview subject.

Anita De Felice, president of Gifts of the Past, a family history keepsake company, <>, emphasizes the beyond -just-the-facts benefits of interviewing relatives. “What you ideally hope to do is ‘add meat to the genealogical bones,’ to bring your family history to life by finding out the stories, meanings and perceptions behind the facts,” says De Felice. “For example, you know when your grandparents got married, but do you know how they met? How they courted? Or whether their parents approved of the marriage?”

If you take some time to prepare for your oral history interviews by following the advice here, you’ll reap these rewards — and even more.
Make a short list.

Begin your preparation by deciding whom you’ll interview, “Sometimes, you start with a research question, and then you have to figure out who should be interviewed and how you would find them,” advises Sherna Berger Gluck, director of the Oral History Program at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) <>. On the other hand, Gluck adds, you may already have in mind someone you’d like to interview — you’ll then need to do some background research on likely interview topics. If you’re planning to ask your uncle about his service in Korea, for example, it will help if you’ve read up beforehand on that historical episode.

Make a list of candidates and prioritize your interviews. If the primary goal is to add genealogical information to your family tree, you’d list 95-year-old second-cousin-once-removed Grace above your healthy uncle who’s 60. On the other hand, certain relatives may live much closer to your home than others, making them more accessible subjects. And some simply may be more open to being interviewed — start with these people if you’re a newbie. “First-time interviewers should consider beginning with a family member who is eager to tell his story, rather than one who is reluctant,” De Felice suggests.

Gather contact information for the people on your list and write each a letter requesting an interview. Letters often work better than phone calls for that first contact, especially with elderly relatives who may be hard of hearing. The letter needn’t be lengthy or complicated (for one thing, it won’t be your only communication, since you’ll be telephoning before the interview to confirm the date, time and location, anyway). But your note should provide a general idea of how much time the interviewee will have to invest and how you plan to conduct the interview.

In your letter, tell your subject how you plan to use her stories — in a family history, scrapbook, Web site or anything people besides you will see — and ask for her permission. Most families have touchy issues, such as divorce or an out-of-wedlock birth, so assure your interviewee that you won’t share any information she doesn’t want you to. CSULB’s Gluck suggests that after the interview, you record a statement listing how you plan to use the information. Then have your interviewee verbally agree.

If you plan to make the interview available to the public — say, submit it to a library or write about it in a journal article — use a more detailed release form like CSULB’s <>.

 Open up.
What you ask depends on your purpose for the interview and the person you’re interviewing. The Baylor Workshop divides interviews into topical, genealogical and biographical approaches. A topical, or event-centered, interview might focus on a historical event, such as Grandfather’s experience in World War II, or on a more personal, family occasion, such as a wedding or a move across the country. A genealogical interview might concentrate on the interviewee’s knowledge of ancestors’ lives, whereas a biographical discussion would explore the interviewee’s own life experiences.

In a biographical interview, De Felice suggests asking about the “old neighborhood,” childhood responsibilities and playtime, courtship and marriage, childbirth, immigration experiences, the Great Depression, family food customs and holiday rituals, gender-role changes, wars, family secrets, individual family members, work stories and religious worship. See the sidebar at left for questions you can use in each type of interview.

During my interviews with my grandparents, I spent a lot of time on such nitty-gritty details as “When and where were you born?” “How many siblings did you have?” and so on. Since then, I’ve learned that it’s easier to get people to talk with open-ended questions — ones that require answers beyond a simple fact or two. For example, “Tell me about your best school friends,” or “Can you describe your elementary school teachers?” will produce more informative responses than “Who were your friends?” or “Who were your teachers?” Questions beginning with haw and why can yield intriguing answers, too.

To make sure you still get the facts you seek, consider asking your interviewee to fill out a fact sheet in advance. Interviewers for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Southern Oral History Program <>ask each participant to complete a life history form. This fact sheet requests biographical information such as the interviewee’s name and birthplace, spouse’s and children’s names, brief descriptions of educational background, employment history and a resume if one’s available. Yon can use the form on page 71 or devise your own version. Mail the form, and be sure to enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope so your relative can complete and return it before the interview. Then, bring it along to your meeting for reference.

Keep in mind that older relatives might worry you’ll ask for a bunch of names and dates they don’t remember. If you think this might be the case for your interviewee, reassure him or her that you’re interested in memories, too, and consider waiting until after the interview to send a life history form. Be patient with pauses during the conversation — don’t rush ahead to another question. Your interviewee may be gathering thoughts or searching for a memory. And even if you’re speaking with a beloved relative, try to be neutral. Don’t correct the person, challenge his statements or even agree excessively. Let him direct the conversation.
Get equipped.

Next, you’ll need to determine the nuts and bolts of how you’ll conduct the interview. Will you use audiotape or videotape? The main consideration really is your (and your interviewee’s) comfort level. If you’re fussing with a camera or seem intimidated by it, Grandma Mayme likely won’t be at ease, either. Or maybe Grandma bates being on film — if your heart’s set on video, check with her ahead of time.  If you’re using a video camera or tape recorder with an external microphone, place it on a table to keep it steady and put it in a spot where it’ll capture both voices. Lapel microphones — one for each of you — work even better.

Make sure you have fresh batteries, and bring along extras. Gather the other supplies you’ll need: a camera for taking photographs of your interviewee, tissues in case things get emotional, a timer or wristwatch you can keep within view, a notepad and pens or pencils. During the interview, you won’t want to focus on taking word-for-word notes — it’s better to be fully engaged in what the other person is saying. But go ahead and jot down interesting phrases or ideas that you want to return to later in the interview or make sure to remember afterward. Bring copies of any photos you’d like the interviewee to identify, as well as other pictures, postcards, letters and heirlooms that will help the person reminisce.

Save the results.
After the interview, number your tapes and label them with the date and your interview subject’s name. Punch out any tabs so your teenage son can’t record his favorite alternative band over the conversation. Then duplicate the cassettes or transfer them onto a CD-ROM in a universal audio-file format such as WAV, AIF, MP3, AU or SND. You could do this by playing the tape with your computer’s microphone near the recorder, then burning the file onto a CD. Or if you’retech-savvy, connect your rape player to your computer with a microphone level and a line-level input (check your computer manual for restrictions on input voltage levels), and an audio mixer, if necessary. Confused? De Felice offers this transfer service through her Web site, or look in the yellow pages under Audiovisual. A typed transcription is easier to distribute and refer to than a tape — and it’s an extra measure of preservation. If you plan to transcribe the tapes, do it while the interview is fresh in your mind. Transcribing requires patience, good typing skills and the proper equipment. In addition to your typewriter or computer, you’ll need a tape player with fast-forward and rewind buttons, plus a headset that doesn’t make your skull ache. Transcribe the speaker’s exact phrasing: Don’t try to “clean up” the text by shortening rambling sentences or even removing ums and ubs. You always can create an edited version later.

Another option is to write a summary of the interview, with word-for-word transcriptions of key quotations. If you plan to submit the interview to an archive or use it to assist family members’ research, create a list of keywords, such as events, names and places, mentioned during the interview.

You also can hire a transcription service, such as TAPESCRIBE, based at the University of Connecticut Center for Oral History <>. Audiotape transcriptions cost $3 per double-spaced page; you’ll pay about $90 for a 60-minuite interview.

Be sure to send the interviewee a copy of the interview, your family history scrapbook or any other work that incorporates stories from the interview. And there’s just one last thing you must not forget: As soon as you get home from the interview, sit down and write a thank-you note.
From the September 2004 Trace Your Family History