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City Lore Interviewing Guide

Interviewing as a tool for oral history and community-based research

Interviewing is an exciting way to gather information about people, places, and events.  An interview is like a conversation, except that the interviewer does most of the listening, and the person being interviewed (the narrator) does most of the talking. Your job as an interviewer is to put the narrator at ease, listen carefully to his or her responses, and  ask questions that elicit rich detail and  interesting answers and perspectives on the topic you are researching.

What interviews/oral histories can provide:

  • Learning about an event, either historical or contemporary, through the eyes and experiences of ordinary people makes the story more compelling.
  • Gives us an insight into the perspectives of ordinary people who are often not in our history books, or interviewed in our newspapers or television/radio shows
  • Provides accounts of historical events from the perspectives of people who witnessed those events.
  • Provide multiple perspectives and reveals attitudes toward events, not just the facts. (What people think influences what they do, so this is important).
  • Provides rich material for writing and for artistic expression
  • Interviewing helps develop listening, speaking, and writing skills, as well as skills in being interviewed
  • Provides interviewers with an opportunity to get to know people they see every day, but with whom they have not had a long conversation, including their own families 
  • “Oral history is not only about wars and national events, but also about people who struggled to meet the day-to-day challenges wrought by difficult times as well as the joys brought on by realized dreams.” – Homespun

PREPARING FOR THE INTERVIEW

  • Think about the purpose of your interview.  Ask yourself, “What do I want to know?”   “Who is the best person to interview for the information and perspectives I need?” 
  • Do background research on the topic before the interview.
  • Prepare a set of focused questions from your research and a list of topics to cover.  Find out as much as you can about the person you plan to interview. If you are conducting the interview to produce some kind of product (such as essay, radio program, exhibit, visual arts project, song writing, etc.) keep in mind the kind of information you will need as you prepare your questions.
  • Talk to the person you plan to interview ahead of time. Briefly describe your topic, why you chose him or her to interview, and how you plan to use the information.  Giving the person a few days to think about the topic may result in a richer interview.  Reassure the person that you’re not looking for an expert on your topic, but rather for his or her perspective, personal experiences, and memories.
  • Test your equipment.  If you plan to record the interview, test your equipment before you go to the interview. If your tape recorder uses batteries, always bring a spare set.

CONDUCTING THE INTERVIEW

Asking Good Questions:

  • Two types of questions are essential to a good interview:
  1. Closed-ended questions get "yes" and "no" or one or two-word responses and help you gather basic information. These questions often begin with the words:
    - WHAT (is the name of the town where you were born?)
    - WHERE (were you stationed during the war?)
    - WHEN (did you family come to the United States?)
    - DID (your family enter the United States through Ellis Island?)
  2. Open-ended questions give the narrator a chance to talk at length on a topic. Devote more time to open-ended questions, which often begin with the words and phrases:
    - TELL ME ABOUT (your experiences working in the mine).
    - WHAT WAS IT LIKE (living on the Lower East Side at that time)?
    - DESCRIBE (a typical day of work on the farm).
    - EXPLAIN (how you shear a sheep).
    - HOW (did you feel leaving your family behind?)
    - WHY (did you decide to take a job in the factory?)
  • Inform your interviewee about the purposes and uses of the interview.  Respect their right to refuse to discuss certain subjects.
  • Listen carefully to your narrator’s responses and ask follow-up questions to clarify or probe more deeply into a topic or to get more specific and detailed information.
  • Avoid asking leading questions.  Ask questions that encourage the narrator to answer in a way that reflects the narrator’s thinking, not your thinking. Instead of asking: “Don’t you think it was wrong to close the factory?
    -Ask in a way that does not reveal your opinions: “How did you feel about town’s decision to close down the factory?
  • Ask the narrator for specific examples and stories to illustrate the points he or she makes. 
    - If the narrator says, “We used to get in trouble for playing games in the alley,” you could ask, “Could you describe some of the games you played in the alley?” or “Do you remember a time that you got in trouble?”
          
  • Ask for detailed descriptions of people and places and events.
  • Use your list of prepared questions as a guide, but be flexible and change the order, ask new questions, or explore different topics that come up during the interview.  If the narrator starts to talk about subjects not relevant to your topic, politely move back to the topic with a new question.
  •  Especially if you plan to publish parts of the interview, ask your interviewee to sign a release giving you permission to use the material.

INTERVIEWING ETIQUETTE

  • Be a good listener. Show that you're listening by making eye contact, not repeating questions, waiting until the narrator is finished answering before asking another question, and  asking good follow-up questions that show you are interested and are paying attention.
  • Don't be afraid of silence. Inexperienced interviewers often rush to the next question when there is silence.  Give the narrator and yourself time to pause, think, and reflect.
  • Think of your interview as having a beginning, middle, and end.
    - Before the interview, talk informally to help both you and the narrator relax and feel comfortable talking.  Explain your topic and how you plan to use the information (even if you have done this on the phone).
        
    - Begin with easy questions that are not too personal or threatening.  This gives the narrator time to get to know you, understand what you want to learn, and decide if he trusts you enough to share personal information.
          
    - Move to more open-ended questions and questions that probe more deeply into your topic and your narrator’s personal experiences.

    - When you have finished, ask, “Is there anything you would like to add?

  • Thank the narrator before leaving and ask if he or she would mind if you call for additional information after you have had time to look at your notes.  Follow up with a thank you note.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW

  • Label the tapes. Unlabeled tapes are easily lost, recorded over, etc. Label tapes with name of interviewee, date, tape number (if more than one used), and other information relevant to your situation.
  • For recorded interviews, listen to the recording and make a list of the key topics.  In you have time, transcribe the interview, or outline the interview and transcribe only interesting quotes and information that you may want to use in your final project.
  • Analyze your notes.  Look for evidence of: the narrator’s point of view, thematic connections between different parts of the narrative, interesting quotes, connections between the narrator’s personal story and larger historical narratives.
  • Contrast and compare the perspective and experiences of this narrator to others you have interviewed and to written records. This will help you to check for accuracy and also to see how unique or broadly representative this narrator’s experiences and perspectives are.
  • Treat the evidence with care. Apply the same standards for citation and use of oral history materials as you would with other types of historical evidence. You have a responsibility not to misrepresent the interviewee's words or take them out of context.