In part I of our guide to oral history for the family historian, we covered the basics of oral history -- what it is, how the how the genealogy community can benefit from it, and why family gatherings like are the perfect opportunity to make headway.
Now it's time to get down to brass tacks - the proper way to conduct an oral history interview. Follow the advice outlined here and you will surely have a successful interview.
Preparation is paramount
Oral history interviews usually only happen once. This means it's absolutely essential that you maximize the amount of great information you get out of your interview by preparing as much as you can in advance. The questions you ask will have a dramatic impact on the amount of information you're able to obtain.
The most important thing you can do ahead of time is make arrangements with your subject(s). As discussed in part I, an unwilling participant isn't going to give you good answers so you need to make sure whoever you plan to do so is willing to sit down and talk.
Right now is the perfect time to informally reach out and see which of your relatives might be interested in sitting down with you. You know each individual best, so it's up to you to pitch it in an appealing way. Your grandmother may bristle with pride and anticipation to know that she has a very official, formal family history interview coming up. But maybe your great-uncle will only be game to participate if he views it as a low-key conversation. As we'll discuss in detail further on, making your subject comfortable is priority #1!
Prepare general questions in advance, and keep specific facts you're looking for noted as well.
Once you have your RSVP's, it's time to begin preparing questions. Crack open any notes you have on the immediate family of the relative you're interviewing. Run through their life story in your mind, and highlight areas you would like to know more about. While you may have specific information you're hoping they'll provide, try to keep all of your questions open-ended. Remember, the goal here is to prompt stories, not to interrogate your relative for specific facts.
What to bring
Of course you'll want to bring a printed or digital copy of the questions you have prepared in advance. But what else?
The absolute best way to capture an oral history interview is by audio recording. Recording your interview is essential to accurate record taking
Having an audio recording is superior to note taking for several reasons. No matter how quickly you can write or type, you'll surely miss quite a few details if you're frantically trying to capture your subject's words manually. And even if you're able to get the hard facts written down, you'll lose the entirety of their narrative, the big picture. The beauty of oral history is that it's a real person's experience described in their own words, as a story instead of a mere list of facts and dates. If you're only taking notes, you lose this narrative aspect and the subject's voice.
Finally, and most importantly, you can't be distracted by the act of transcribing everything in the midst of the interview. As an interviewer, your mind needs to be 100% present in the conversation, paying full attention to the content of the subjects answers. Good interviews are just like conversations - as the interviewer you need to be able to respond to your subject's answers on the fly and open up other lines of questioning when good details emerge. If you're fumbling with a notepad you will surely miss some great opportunities.
Another thing to consider bringing is any items that may jog memories. If you have family heirlooms, old military decorations or old photographs, bring them!
You'll be amazed at the memories that surface when an object of the past is handled by someone who finds meaning in it.
The importance of a comfortable subject
The best thing an oral history interviewer can do is make the subject comfortable. Recalling past memories and sharing intimate details of what your life was like decades ago isn't an easy thing! The good oral historian places great emphasis on keeping the interview subject comfortable and happy -- this keeps the stories flowing.
Consider conducting the interview in a setting other than a one-on-one sit-down. Sometimes this will make the subject feel pressured and cause them to clam up. Some people are much more comfortable opening up while going for a walk, playing checkers, fishing or knitting - think of possible activities in case your subject would prefer a different setting.
Depending on your subject, you may want to send them questions in advance. Those that are most enthusiastic about it will really enjoy thinking through some of their answers ahead of time. But if you have a reluctant participant you might not want to do this. Keep things seeming informal to maintain a conversational atmosphere.
Another key thing to remember is to remain patient and appreciative no matter what. Just ask your questions and let them open up - don't get hung up on any specific pieces of information you're looking for, and don't be too persistent if things look like they aren't shaping up the way you hoped. The best thing to do is to ask clarifying questions on names and dates as they come up naturally in answers, not to begin by rattling off a list of information you're seeking. Even if they do not give you a complete or detailed story, their recollections can still give you the clues you need to progress much further than before in your research.
The key to oral history is to empathize with the subject. These aren't record books or online documents -- they're people and your family members at that! Maintain eye contact, pay attention and make sure to be engaged with the story. The more your subject sees your interest, the more willing they will be to share.
In the end, the oral history interview is all about relating to your subject and making sure they have a good time. This will help you capture the most information possible. From your end, it's all about flexibility - pay close attention and capitalize on getting valuable information when the opportunity presents itself.