A GUIDE TO ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWING

 

by the staff of the Jacobus tenBroek Library
and the NFB Jernigan Institute

JtBLibrary@nfb.org

 

Many members of the National Federation of the Blind are interested in the history of our movement—and for good reason. By looking backward we can learn both from mistakes and from smart moves. And, by looking backward, we derive inspiration from the struggles and successes of our leaders and of all Federationists who have helped change what it means to be blind.

As the repository of the history of the NFB, the Jacobus tenBroek Library is responsible not only for the published records of the Federation (in the Braille Monitor, for example), but also for our archives. To supplement the written material in the archives, over the years various people have undertaken to interview other Federationists about their experiences and their memories of important people and events. The tenBroek Library is now attempting to incorporate such interviews into a more formal oral history program.

 

What is oral history and how is it used?

Oral history is a method for obtaining evidence by interviewing people about their experiences. Professional oral historians often have advanced degrees in history, but you can still do good oral history without special training.

Historians use many types of evidence to figure out what happened in the past. Historical evidence can consist of writings, such as speeches by leaders, newspaper articles, or letters written by soldiers to their families. It can also consist of physical objects, such as archeological ruins, gravestones, or pieces of clothing. Oral historians gather a different type of evidence, the spoken words of people asked to comb through their own memories of past events.

But can’t memory play tricks on us? Yes, and we cannot fully trust anyone’s memories of past events. Memory, however, is not the only source of evidence that may not accurately reflect the past. A newspaper may present the partisan view of the newspaper’s owner or editor. A soldier’s letter home might minimize the danger he or she is facing in a war zone. A gravestone might incorrectly spell a person’s name.

Anyone writing an article or book on history needs to be critical of all types of evidence; and anyone who conducts an oral history interview must try to get the most complete, accurate information possible—recognizing that very few pieces of evidence are complete or fully accurate.

 

Preparing for the oral history interview

The interviewer should know as much about the subject of the interview as possible. If the subject is a published writer, the interviewer should read what the subject has written. If the subject was present at an important event, the interviewer should learn as much as possible about the event. If the subject knew a famous person, the interviewer should learn about that famous person.

Not all subjects of oral history interviews are published writers, nor have they all lived through momentous events. We are interested in the lives of ordinary blind people, as well as the movers and shakers of our movement. For this reason it may not be possible to learn much about the subject’s background without simply talking with him or her (or with other people who have known them for a while). So, before turning on the recording device, we advise interviewers to have an informal conversation during which they can note interesting points to raise during the formal oral history interview.

Some NFB chapters are adopting the “Why I Am a Federationist” interview as an activity at chapter meetings. The information gained at this activity can be used as the basis for a more in-depth oral history interview. If your chapter makes use of “Why I Am a Federationist,” make sure to get the names of each participant and his or her permission, as described below.

 

Permission

It is important to have explicit permission to record the interview, produce a transcript, and make the interview available to researchers. If possible, use the form provided with these instructions and get the subject’s signature. Otherwise, at the start of the recorded interview, be sure to ask the subject for permission to record, transcribe, and make available the contents of the interview. The subject’s positive reply should be clearly audible on the sound recording.

 

The Interview

Location is extremely important when recording an oral history interview. Scout out the interview location before sitting down with the subject. Whenever possible hold the interview in a small, quiet room. Have your subject sit across a table from you with the microphone or recorder on the table between you. Remember that the closer the microphone or recorder is to your subject, the better the sound quality will be. Close any windows in the room and keep away from any air conditioning vents as the recorder may pick up background noise from them. Be sure to turn off all cell phones or switch them to airplane mode. Cell phones periodically send signals to the nearest cell phone tower and can interfere with the recording.

Test the recording equipment before beginning, especially if it has not been used before. Take a sample recording by talking into the microphone and playing it back. This will help to eliminate any undetected background noise picked up by the microphone and work out the bugs before the formal interview begins.

Depending on the accomplishments of the person, the interview can take as little as a half hour or as much as ten hours spread out over a number of sessions. If you feel that you don’t have enough time to do a thorough job, do as much as you can. Especially with older subjects, you may find that no single session can last more than 45 minutes or an hour.

It is important to start the interview with the names of the interviewer or interviewers, the name of the subject or subjects, and anyone else that is present and may speak during the interview. We recommend, if possible, though, to have only one subject of each interview and not to allow anyone else to be present.

After getting everyone’s name, state the date, time, and location of the interview.

 

What to ask

It is difficult to specify what questions should be asked. So much depends on the life experiences of the subject. Here are some possibilities:

 

Etiquette

Be polite and attentive throughout the interview. Be sure to wait until the interview subject has completely finished answering a question before asking a new question. Try to keep the subject on track and avoid repetition; but keep in mind, especially with older subjects, this may be difficult. If you find that the interview is going nowhere, try to wrap it up without offending the subject.

 

Post-interview

After the interview has finished, completing a few wrap-up tasks will help ensure that your recording can stand the test of time. Label the CD (or tape) as well as its case with the date of the interview, the name of the interview subject and the words oral history interview. If saving as a file on the computer, include the same information in the file name using this format:

mmddyyyy_John_Doe_oral_history

Write a one or two sentence description of the interview subject that includes their name and any other identifying characteristics. For example:

Jane Doe has been a member of the Greater Baltimore chapter of the NFB of Maryland since 1970 and she served as chapter president from 1975 to 1980.

A copy of this description should be placed in the CD case or saved in the same place as the recording.

Most importantly, back up the recording and the accompanying files. CDs can be damaged over time, computers can crash and information can be lost. Make more that one copy of the CD or save the files in more than one place, preferably on an external hard drive.

 

Transcription

If you have the time and resources to transcribe the interview yourself (or to engage someone else to do it), please do so. If not, we will nonetheless be pleased to receive the sound recording (or video recording, if that is possible).

 

Preservation

When you have finished the interview and the post-interview wrap-up, please contact the staff at the tenBroek Library, so that we can arrange to preserve it in the Federation archives.