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Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

7. Setting Up the Interview

Once I have a list of potential narrators, what's the best approach for getting in touch with a narrator?

First contact with the narrator should be by letter, from the sole interviewer or the project director. In this initial contact, the interviewer or project director explains the goals of the interview or project, briefly describes the reasons for asking the narrator to participate, and (in the case of a project) gives the narrator the name of the person who will be doing the interview. In a project, the director also lets the narrator know that the interviewer will contact him or her within a week to discuss the project further. Click here for a sample initial contact letter.

The interviewer then often follows up by telephone. This conversation covers the following:

The interviewer then sends a letter confirming the interview and identifying the general points to be covered in it. Click here for a sample interview confirmation letter.

Should I send the narrator a list of questions?

No. Giving the narrator the general interview subjects allows him or her to prepare for the interview by thinking about the general points to be covered. But sharing specific questions often results in narrow, rehearsed responses rather than the full, spontaneous accounts oral historians seek.

If I'm just going to interview Grandma, why can't I just call her up and find out when I can come over to talk to her about her growing-up years?

Certainly, you can do that. But you probably won't get as good an interview as you would if you treated her the way you'd treat a stranger. Explaining the process, describing the release form you'll ask her to sign, doing some background research, outlining the general topics you want to cover - these are all signs of professionalism and of respect for the narrator and for the information she has to share.

Would it help if I have some specific information about the narrator, not just the general information about the time and subject we're going to cover?

Absolutely. Narrator-specific research is as important as the general background research you conducted earlier. This can be recorded on a Biographical Information Form. Take the list of interview topics and read up as much as possible on the narrator, and talk to the narrator by telephone to fill in the biographical data. A conversation with the narrator might even give you more leads for additional background research.

But be careful: If you contact the narrator before the interview, make sure not to let him or her launch into the interview prematurely.

How do I make sure I cover all the topics in my preparations?

Using the interview topics and background information about the narrator as a guide, you can prepare an outline of questions or themes to cover in the interview.

These guidelines will help you prepare questions:

I know I shouldn't be late or cut short an interview, but how much time should this interview take?

When using audio equipment alone, it will take at least 15 to 20 minutes to set up the equipment and get the narrator settled and ready to begin (setup for a videotaped interview will take longer). The interviewer should also use this time to do the following:

Altogether, a single one- to one-and-one-half-hour audio interview can take up to three hours.

OK, I'm at the narrator's home. Now what?

The best interview setting is usually one in which the narrator is most comfortable. It should be as quiet as possible to maximize sound quality. If video is used, lighting and a good view of any items the narrator wants to show are important. The interviewer should do as much as possible to control extra sounds, such as barking dogs, ringing phones, and ticking clocks. Some sounds, such as furnaces or air conditioners, cannot be changed.

Follow these guidelines to set up an audio-only interview:

Other points to remember for an audio-only interview:


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