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Getting Started:
Tips for Conducting Oral History Interviews

Background and preparation | Equipment | Conducting the interview| Editing | Preservation

The following tips should be considered general and introductory. Consult the bibliography for more specific and detailed information.

Background and preparation:

  1. Think through your objectives for conducting an oral history project and choose interviewees accordingly. Select interviewees who have the background and experience that might be expected to result in authoritative knowledge or interesting perspectives relevant to the subject you are attempting to document. For example, if your objective is to record an overview of the formative years of the high tech industry in Massachusetts you will want to select representative companies and locate employees who were at those firms in the startup phase. You may want to include sales reps and technicians as well as entrepreneurs, executives, and engineers for each firm. If your objective is to explore the ideas of the founders of high tech firms that were created as spin-offs of graduate work done at MIT, you may decide to interview those founders, their thesis advisors, their business partners, business rivals, spouses, and classmates. Oral history can be used to flesh out the details left undocumented by other sources, or to offer new perspectives on events that have already been documented by other means.
  2. Leave sufficient time to do relevant reading (if available) on the life and career of your interviewee(s) and on related subjects. Books, articles, press clippings, resumes, and manuscript materials are all useful. The more you read, the better prepared you will be.
  3. Choose appropriate tape recording apparatus and become thoroughly familiar with its capabilities and with how to use it.
  4. Inform the interviewee about your objectives and expectations, emphasize the importance to the project of his or her cooperation, explain that he or she will be asked to sign an agreement determining copyright ownership, and explain that the tapes and transcripts will be preserved and made available for research.

Equipment:

  1. Choose a good quality tape recorder (e.g., Sony or Marantz) with input for external microphones, a power cord, and a line enabling hookup to another recorder.
  2. Choose a good quality microphone with a stand for tabletop use. Unidirectional, omnidirectional, and lavaliere microphones can be used for interviews, but each type has advantages and disadvantages. The omnidirectional works well in most situations and is the best choice for projects that can afford only one microphone
  3. Use high quality Type 1 cassette tapes (60 or 90 minutes). Do not use "chrome" or "metal" tapes.

Conducting the interview:

  1. Select a site that is convenient for the interviewee, but relatively free from distractions and background noise. If the site chosen is the interviewee's home, ask if it would be possible to talk in a room that is quiet and away from the flow of family activity.
  2. Make an appointment well in advance and call to confirm one or two days before the agreed-upon date.
  3. Bring extra tapes, a watch, and an extension cord in addition to the other apparatus.
  4. Prepare a well-organized list of questions, but do not interfere with the spontaneity of the interview by providing the questions to the interviewee in advance
  5. Allow the tape to run for several seconds (to get past the leader) before beginning to speak. Begin each tape by stating the names of interviewee and interviewer, as well as the date and location of the interview. Position the microphone carefully, speak clearly in the direction of the mike, and encourage the interviewee to do the same. Check the apparatus periodically to ensure that the tape is running. Note the time when recording started so you can turn or change the tape before it gets to the end, resulting in lost words
  6. Ask questions in a form that invites expanded answers instead of a simple "yes" or "no." Ask additional appropriate questions as they occur to you. Follow up on interesting comments. Be polite and respectful at all times, but do not be afraid to ask difficult or controversial questions. (It may be advantageous to reserve difficult questions for the later stages of an interview, after rapport has been established.)
  7. A single interview session should not ordinarily last longer than two hours. Make appointment(s) for additional interviewing if necessary
  8. Create a background sheet of relevant facts, such as interviewee's name, phone number, and address, length and location of interview, the circumstances of the interview, subject highlights, and hard-to-spell names or other words. Label each cassette with name of interviewee, date, length of tape, and copyright notice.
Editing:
  1. Choose an experienced and careful person, trained in the use of word processors, to type transcriptions, using a foot pedal for starting and stopping the tape as needed
  2. The transcript should eliminate false starts, crutch words, and repetition, but should not correct grammar or alter meaning.
  3. Show the transcript to the interviewee for clarification and correction of errors and have it retyped.
  4. Prepare an index (if time and resources permit).
Preservation:
  1. Save original recordings as well as transcripts. If possible, make a preservation copy of the cassette on 1/4 inch polyester reel-to-reel tape. Create a "user copy" of the cassette so that the original is not subjected to unnecessary wear and tear.
  2. Keep tapes away from magnetic fields (e.g., airport metal detectors, magnets, and running motors).
  3. Store tapes "tails out" at a constant temperature between 50 and 70 degrees F. and constant relative humidity between 40% and 50%. Minimizing the fluctuation of temperature and R.H. is important.
  4. Store tapes that have been played at normal speed, not at "rewind" or "fast forward" speeds. Tapes should be stored upright, not flat.
  5. Create a control file for each interview, containing fact sheets, question lists, copyright agreements, correspondence with interviewees or their families, notes of telephone conversations, and other relevant information.
  6. If you have not already done so before conducting the oral history, discuss with an appropriate archival repository the possibility of finding a permanent home for the materials you have collected.


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