Conducting Interviews for History

Photos are a great way to jump-start oral history interviews. This unidentified photo from the Morrison County Historical Society's collection definitely tells a story. [#1980.13.1]

Photos are a great way to jump-start oral history interviews. This unidentified photo from the Morrison County Historical Society’s collection definitely tells a story. [#1980.13.1]

“You really have to talk to my ­­great-aunt Rosella. She’s 94 and knows a lot of ­local history.” Substitute uncle, mother, father, or other relation for great-aunt, any name for Rosella, any age over 70, and add a hint of desperation that this fount of knowledge is not going to be around ­forever and you’ve got a request we receive several times a year at The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum.

It’s a great request and the collection of oral ­histories is an invaluable service. In fact, the Morrison County Historical Society, which owns and operates the Weyerhaeuser Museum, was founded on oral history interviews produced during the Great Depression as part of the Works Progress Administration. Between 1936 and 1939, ten people hired by the WPA interviewed and typed the biographies of over 1,130 Morrison County residents. These oral histories became the foundation of our Family Files.

If oral histories are so important and we’re ­constantly getting requests to take them, why aren’t we doing more of them? A lot of things have changed since the WPA project. When MCHS was founded in 1936, there was no museum building or collection to care for. There were ten people hired to do nothing but oral history interviews. Compare that to our current staff of five managing a collection of thousands of items, assisting researchers, writing history, providing exhibits and tours, maintaining a website, and keeping a specialized museum environment operational.

Oral history conventions have also changed. At the time of the WPA, an ­interviewer went out with a basic list of questions, paper and pencil in hand, to capture a two-to-three-page summary of a person’s life. Today’s interviewer also has a list of questions, but heads out with a recorder or video camera to capture every nuance of the interviewee’s voice. In order to make the oral histories accessible over time, the tape or video can’t merely be shelved; it has to be transcribed, typically word-for-word, so that every “um” and “ah” is preserved. An hour-long taped interview can end up being over 40 typed pages. Because of the time involved, when a ­history organization writes a grant for an oral ­history project, the project typically involves interviewing no more than ten-to-fifteen individuals. Much more than that and oral history projects become unwieldy.

Given the time-consuming nature of oral histories and the perpetual lack of time staff has to do them, it’s a wonder we get around to interviewing anyone. We do, but our interviews tend to be very limited in scope and we often resort to the pen-and-paper summary method our WPA forebears used in order to capture the ­information we need. I recently ­conducted brief phone ­interviews (no more than fifteen minutes to a half-hour each) of two locals for a newsletter ­article. My questions covered a narrow topic and I scribbled ­furiously while on the phone, but these short interviews allowed me to add personal flavor to a larger subject.

This narrow focus is important to remember. When people make the ­request for us to interview a friend or relative, their expectation is that we will somehow capture the ­entire sweep of a person’s life, kind of like a Doris Kearns Goodwin biography. It took Goodwin ten years to write her biography of Teddy Roosevelt, something she did without interviewing Roosevelt. Having museum staff breeze in and write a person’s life history from a few interview sessions is not going to happen.

Aside from time, there are issues of trust and lack of knowledge to contend with. To do an interview well, staff need background information on the interviewee. This is often missing, which is what necessitates the interview in the first place. Even if staff are granted time for an interview, an interviewee who doesn’t feel comfortable certainly won’t share important life details with a stranger. I was in an interview session once that I likened to speed dating. I had to conduct around 20 interviews on people I didn’t know in rapid succession in a few hours. One woman ­refused to provide her birth date. I can’t blame her. I was a complete stranger. Why should she talk to me?

What, then, are we to do about ­collecting all the oral histories people ­request of us?

We encourage you to do them. You don’t need to wait for an organization or some other “authority” to conduct an oral history.
You know your relative better than museum staff do. You know what to ask. Hopefully, your relative trusts you enough to talk to you. Through regular interactions with your relative, you have an opportunity to conduct a lot of mini interviews over time rather than try to get the entire story in one go.

[See “Guidelines for Conducting an Oral History Interview” below.]

You can augment your oral ­histories with material produced directly by the ­interviewee. Does your relative keep a ­journal? Have photo albums or family videos? A collection of personal letters? Would your relative be willing to write his or her own memories? If you’ve got a writer on your hands, check out the guidelines for our “What’s It Like [ …] in Morrison County?” essay project online at http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/whatsitlike/. This project helps people to focus on narrow topics to produce short essays of personal history.

With the explosive use of ­technology and social media today, people are recording more personal history than the world has ever seen. If historians ever get a chance to mine an ­individual’s ­personal blog, public Twitter and ­YouTube accounts, private Facebook page and email account, along with a computer hard drive, they will have more ­information on a person’s life than even the most complete oral history could uncover. That sort of access may be a long time coming. Until then, oral histories are critical to our understanding of a person’s past.

~ Mary Warner
Museum Manager

Guidelines for Conducting an Oral History Interview

1. Decide who you want to interview.

2. Do your research. Talk to other family members and dig into a bit of genealogical data regarding your interviewee so you have some context for the interview.

3. Decide on the topic(s) you want to cover. Limit your interview to no more than a few topics. Don’t try to cover an entire life story.

4. Write a list of questions based on your research. This is merely a starting point for the interview. Be willing to go off script and follow where your subject leads.

5. Have your recording device ready, including extra batteries. Even if you’re planning to use an electronic device to capture the interview, bring a notepad and pen to take notes.

6. Limit the interview to about an hour.

7. Capture basic information at the beginning of the interview, including full name of subject, date of birth, address, date and place of interview, and your name and relationship to the interviewee.

8. When finished with the interview, type your notes and/or transcribe the electronic version right away, while the conversation is still fresh in your mind. If you lose momentum, the information you have captured could be lost.

9. Have the interviewee read the transcript to correct errors.

10. With the interviewee’s approval, provide a transcript of the oral ­history to your local history organization.

Remember, an oral history is a conversation. Relax and enjoy ­yourself!

For more information on conducting interviews, visit the Minnesota Historical Society’s web page on oral history here: http://www.mnhs.org/people/mngg/stories/oralhistory.htm.

This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2014.

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