Oral History Seminar Notes

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Oral History Seminar 11/22/2011

What distinguishes an oral history from an interview?

Interviews, distinctions between chat and prepared agenda; There is a purposeful extraction of information for a cause

Oral histories: Biographical information is important, but there is no planned agenda. Open-ended conversation, follow organic conversation; Interviewee is in charge of the conversation.

Carol: Three important topics:

People doing interview have some degree of background knowledge.

Biographical, Is this a part of the interview? How much do you need? Is the interview the process where you excavate this information?

In terms of OWS: Identify articles, common understanding to explore, do not go into interview cold. Have a background to make it more engaged.

Cynthia: It’s harder for people who haven’t spoken to press to be naturally open to discussion. I interviewed John – a part of the library group, he has been interviewed multiple times. Important question to ask “ How will I make this interview new to the interviewee?” Look at environment and events around, if it is a chaotic day (like day of eviction) make the questions interesting.

Carol: Dialogical element of oral history is important. It’s slow, back and forth; it counteracts media today; having that dialogue. It’s not hierarchal. There is a focus but it is much more open.

Cynthia: Any information you have will already be biased. Most biographical information you receive will be through a third party, outside the cause, already obstructed by a slant. If you have biographical information do no assume, or use it as a basis to interpret an interviewee.

Samara: Too many sound bites, results in the loss of complexity. People inclined to be in front of the camera are not type to usually sit down for a long drawn out conversation. It also gives people opportunity to say more in depth information.

Cynthia: Make interviewee realize you aren’t here to report anything, you are here to document.

Justin: Less pressure, we aren’t here to transform this into sound bites, or a 300 word blurb. Something we as interviewers bring up at some point.

Cynthia: I try very hard to keep my talking to the absolute minimum.

Carol: That defines oral history as well, it is dialogue but it is about their stories.

Cynthia: This past interview, compared to prior, you have to think what is the most essential thing to ask right now. Interview people you have something in common with, pairing people who have the same background.

Carol: Sometimes it’s liberating to have someone different interviewing. The other thing that you mentioned is that we’re keeping it, an interview done for a book, they happen but who knows what happens with them; This is creating history and having it available as evidence to other activists, researchers etc. It is valuable because it is accessible.

Sarita: It appears there is no conclusion drawn from oral history interviews.

Carol: Citing Linda Shopes History Matters. All mediums can be drawn from oral histories (art, documentary, books etc.). It must be accessible, if not it is no longer oral histories.

Samara: There is the idea of creating a digital archive, even though the focus now is to gather as much as possible.

Carol: But you should be collecting keeping it in mind that it will be seen.

Cynthia: Transcriptions are extremely important.

Carol: It is much faster and easier to look through transcripts rather than listen to tapes. As a historian, transcriptions are extremely valuable.

Samara: Online crowd sourcing of transcripts. Shazz also spoke about creating a website and starting files immediately.

Carol: That meets the requirement of making it oral history, making it accessible. Allowing people to give their stories, it allows for people in a movement, within the moment do describe what constitutes what is happening. What is drawing people? It helps the movement create an identity.

Samara: how much should the researcher or interviewer direct? Should you have themes you are looking for in an oral history or should you let it happen on it’s own?

Cynthia: You want to lead, you don’t want it to be pointless, but at the same time you want it to pop up unexpectedly.

Carol: – is an oral historian, who concentrated on coal mines, He realized, “you might not understand what they’re telling you, or why, but you’ll figure it out.” Repeat interviews, up to 20 hours of interview is important. I think focus is okay, there is a push and pull between knowing the reason, and the type of things that will come up.

Cynthia:  I remember being informed by older oral historians that it is important to notify your interviewees of questions prior to the interview, I never understood this and was quite shocked by it. It didn’t seem to be allowing the interview to take a life of it’s own.

Carol: You may tell your interviewee that type of topics you will be aiming to cover, and the types of questions you will ask. Laying the groundwork for a couple of themes that will come up, and a sense of how much time you estimate it will take. You need to establish a relationship and a sense of what will happen, it is still very casual, usually through a letter form-fitted to your project and interviewees.

Justin: This was something discussed in the last meeting, a type of form letter to be sent to a working group to every other working grouping asking for people who would like to be interviewed.

Samara; I think making an outline of a form letter available online, will make people more comfortable.

Carol: Making it known that they are being interviewed for something larger than you and me on the street corner is essential.

Best Practices:

Before interview:

Obtaining background information:

Having a short conversation before recording. Because the luxury of a back and forth prior, there is the risk of the oral history starting before the re cording but it makes interviewee more comfortable.

Researching, if given ability to know interviewee beforehand in other news sources. To see if subject has been quoted or interviewed before, or simply Google the name.

Strategy to make more comfortable:

Frivolous conversation beforehand to make interviewee comfortable (ie weather, technology, friendly conversation etc.)

Giving subject comfort, such as coffee, water or tea; Possibly allowing interviewer to relax and read consent form as you go and get the subject refreshments.

Let them know about consent form or read it twice. Make sure they’re comfortable.

Comfort is KEY!

Conflict of before or after interview: View consent before hand, understand it and then sign consent after interview.

Conflict between restarting interviews, and omitted sections: We must be clear to interviewees that their interview will be put up unedited.

Make all three options of consent form as clear as possible. If subject doesn’t want part of interview online, they must choose third option, where it is restricted to the archives.

Samara: Have legal team give information, so archives can inform interviewees about who can talk about what. For example, let people know who are involved in legal cases, or arrested prior to oral history know that they can not give information about the legal case or events surrounding it.

Instead of having another legal form, let subject know verbally that there may be legal ramifications if they speak about ongoing legal battles; Archives should become well versed with information from Legal.

Conflict of anonymous subjects or aliases: What is our policy on anonymous interviews, or aliases? It usually goes against the nature of oral history interviews but it may come up. We need to find out precedents of cases to see the legality of the situation.

Justin: Problem rooting out possible interviewees during actions.

People feel more threatened, no center of convening since Zuccotti was evicted. The problem of not being affiliated with working groups, and people who do not have email or phone, and being able to track people down again.

Use nametags, it opens doors. Recording ambience and look busy doing other things; also opening up a space in the park, or 60 Wall Street with a sign that says, “Tell us your story.” Visiting shelters as well, because possibility of moving people. Recruiting interviewers that are more comfortable in a specific population may open doors to larger demographics.

Acoustics:

Find a quiet space, if possible. Try to limit the distractions, outside interviews allow for a lot of distracting ambience.

File management:

Transporting and organizing audio and release forms; Also using occupied office for storing consent forms and so forth.

 

 

Interview:

Have information including: your name, interviewee name, date, place, time, etc.

Do not be driven by questions on paper, they are guiding questions to keep the interview focused.

Encourage detailed language, or prompt questions like, “can you give me an example?” “Explain to me.”

Tell interviewee, or remind them to re-iterate the question in their answer. Parenthetical response, synthesize what they have described into a sentence to organize the story again through interviewee. (ie: “I can hear you’re really angry about this, can you describe what exactly provoked this anger?”

Silence is important. It allows people to sit back into their story and pull up a little bit more. Don’t be afraid to let there be silence. Encourage subject, without making noise (i.e. nodding).

Ask questions that are open ended. Avoid yes or no questions; this can be solved by having questions available ahead of time.

Don’t interrupt your speaker. The only real necessity is audio equipment or technological problems. Silence your cell phones.

Some people tell people not to write and take notes during interview.  But taking limited notes while not distracting subject such as acronyms, or questions thought of during interview.

How to wrap up interview:

It will become too much for subject and interviewer.

Last question should be: “Is there something we haven’t talked about that you would like to share?”

If you think you will go past the limit set, let them know and see if they are comfortable with continuing past the set time.

Also, option of letting subjects take breaks if they are seemingly uncomfortable or if interview becomes lengthy and grueling.

Other tips: Backup as soon as possible, also if there is a problem with audio files, or any other technical aspect do not hesitate in contacting subject again.

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