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Preservation Week 2020: Preparing for the Interview

Why Prepare?

Like most things in life, preparation is key to making the most of your oral history interview. The more you know about your subject, the better the interview will be because it will help you hone interview questions that inspire storytelling and build rapport.

1. Review your genealogy.

Before your interview, take the time to look through genealogy charts for names and dates and become familiar with them. Peruse family photos and movies; and read through letters if you have any. This will help you form questions for the interview and also help provide context to their stories.

2. Understand the historical context.

Read a general history book on the time period or event you will be discussing. For example, if you want to talk about your tutu man's experience during World War II, you'll ask more informed questions if you've read a good historical study on the war. Learning more about the historical context, the bigger picture, will help you form questions and raise topics that your interviewee might not think to discuss.

3. Create an outline.

Create a general outline for your interview ahead of time. You do not need to follow it exactly, but it will provide structure to the interview and serve as a reminder of topics you would like to pose during the interview. 

A chronological outline of an interviewee's life is generally the most popular structure for an oral history interview as it allows you to see how the interviewee's experience and ideas developed over time and give richness to the topics being discussed. If you are doing multiple interview sessions, this format lends itself well to keep track of what has been discussed.

Tips for crafting questions and an outline:

  • Consider your goals and what you want to accomplish with this project. Brainstorm questions with these factors in mind.
  • When crafting questions, remember you are trying to record narratives/stories and not just facts and opinions. 
  • Avoid close-ended questions. Ask open-ended questions that begin with, 'why,' 'how,' 'where,' or 'what.' Consider phrasing your questions, 'Tell me about...' or 'What was it like when...' This will allow the interviewee to steer the conversation towards what is most important to them. Yes or no questions can be useful when clarifying details, but should generally be avoided.
  • Avoid leading questions ("Don't you think that..."). These questions prevent you from hearing the interviewee's personal take on a situation.
  • Start with non-controversial questions. Although you may be interested in unraveling a sensitive family story, keep your interviewee and their comfort level in mind. 
  • Open a new topic with a large question. Questions that begin "Tell me about..." or "Can you describe..." are great ways of stimulating memories. Follow up these questions with more specific questions. After you understand the specifics of an event or story, allow your interviewee to evaluate it. For example, if you ask your interviewee about their marriage, start broad and then ask specific follow up questions. After the interviewee describes their marriage or relationship, you might ask for their opinion on what makes a good marriage. By doing this, you get a sense of both their thoughts/philosophy and actual practice. They might even share what they would do differently in retrospect.

4. Prepare your interviewee.

  • Explain why you want to do the interview, what you will with it after, and who will get access. Honestly convey your intentions to the interviewee and be sure to keep your promise. 
  • Share your outline and questions ahead of time with your interviewee. This will help you get most out of your time together. Invite the interview to add new topics to discuss. However, don't give them a list of your questions as it will prevent spontaneous discussion and true engagement. 
  • If you are planning on doing a comprehensive oral history, let the interviewee know that there will be several interview sessions. A typical interview usually last between 90 minutes to 2 hours, before both parties become tired or lose focus. 
  • Arrange for the interview to be between you and the interviewee. Sometimes when you have a third or fourth person in the room, you get a shared version of a story rather than that person's individual experience. You may also lose that person's point of view and opinions.

5. Test your recording equipment before the interview.

  • Test your equipment beforehand so that you are comfortable with it and understand how to troubleshoot it if anything goes wrong. During this test, also make note of the image and audio quality and if it is sufficient for your purposes.

Genealogy Databases and Resources

General History Resources

Example Questions and Outlines

Windward Community College Library • 45-720 Keaʻahala Rd. • Kāneʻohe, HI 96744
Content: Creative Commons License Windward Community College Library
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