1. An interview is not a dialogue. The whole point of the interview
is to get the narrator to tell her story. Limit your own remarks
to a few pleasantries to break the ice, then brief questions to guide
her along. It is not necessary to give her the details of your great-grandmother's
trip in a covered wagon in order to get her to tell you about her
grandfather's trip to California. Just say, "I understand your grandfather
came around the Horn to California. What did he tell you about the
2. Ask questions that require more of an answer than "yes" or "no." Start
with "why," "how," "where," "what kind of ..." Instead of "Was
Henry Miller a good boss?" ask "What did the cowhands think
of Henry Miller as a boss?"
3. Ask one question at a time. Sometimes interviewers ask
a series of questions all at once. Probably the narrator will
answer only the first or last one. You will catch this kind
of questioning when you listen through the tape after the session,
and you can avoid it the next time.
4. Ask brief questions. We all know the irrepressible speech-maker
who, when questions are called for at the end of a lecture,
gets up and asks five-minute questions. It is unlikely that
the narrator is so dull that it takes more than a sentence
or two for her to understand the question.
5. Start with questions that are not controversial; save
the delicate questions, if there are any, until you have become
better acquainted. A good place to begin is with the narrator's
youth and background.
6. Don't let periods of silence fluster you. Give your
narrator a chance to think of what she wants to add before
you hustle her along with the next question. Relax, write a
few words on your notepad. The sure sign of a beginning interviewer
is a tape where every brief pause signals the next question.
7. Don't worry if your questions are not as beautifully
phrased as you would like them to be for posterity. A few fumbled
questions will help put your narrator at ease as she realizes
that you are not perfect and she need not worry if she isn't
either. It is not necessary to practice fumbling a few questions;
most of us are nervous enough to do that naturally.
8. Don't interrupt a good story because you have thought
of a question, or because your narrator is straying from the
planned outline. If the information is pertinent, let her go
on, but jot down your questions on your notepad so you will
remember to ask it later.
9. If your narrator does stray into subjects that are not
pertinent (the most common problems are to follow some family
member's children or to get into a series of family medical
problems), try to pull her back as quickly as possible. "Before
we move on, I'd like to find out how the closing of the mine
in 1935 affected your family's finances. Do you remember that?"
10. It is often hard for a narrator to describe people.
An easy way to begin is to ask her to describe the person's
appearance. From there, the narrator is more likely to move
into character description.
11. Interviewing is one time when a negative approach is
more effective than a positive one. Ask about the negative
aspects of a situation. For example, in asking about a person,
do not begin with a glowing description. "I know the mayor
was a very generous and wise person. Did you find him so?" Few
narrators will quarrel with a statement like that even though
they may have found the mayor a disagreeable person. You will
get a more lively answer if you start out in the negative. "Despite
the mayor's reputation for good works, I hear he was a very
difficult man for his immediate employees to get along with." If
your narrator admired the mayor greatly, she will spring to
his defense with an apt illustration of why your statement
is wrong. If she did find him hard to get along with, your
remark has given her a chance to illustrate some of the mayor's
more unpleasant characteristics.
12. Try to establish at every important point in the story
where the narrator was or what her role was in this event,
in order to indicate how much is eye-witness information and
how much based on reports of others. "Where were you at the
time of the mine disaster?" "Did you talk to any of the survivors
later?" Work around these questions carefully, so that you
will not appear to be doubting the accuracy of the narrator's
13. Do not challenge accounts you think might be inaccurate.
Instead, try to develop as much information as possible that
can be used by later researchers in establishing what probably
happened. Your narrator may be telling you quite accurately
what she saw. As Walter Lord explained when describing his
interviews with survivors of the Titanic, "Every lady I interviewed
had left the sinking ship in the last lifeboat. As I later
found out from studying the placement of the lifeboats, no
group of lifeboats was in view of another and each lady probably
was in the last lifeboat she could see leaving the ship."
14. Tactfully point out to your narrator that there is a
different account of what she is describing, if there is. Start
out by saying, "I have heard ..." or "I have read ..." This
is not to challenge her account, but rather an opportunity
for her to bring up further evidence to refute the opposing
view, or to explain how that view got established, or to temper
what she has already said. If done skillfully, some of your
best information can come from this juxtaposition of differing
15. Try to avoid "off the record" information--the times
when your narrator asks you to turn off the recorder while
she tells you a good story. Ask her to let you record the whole
things and promise that you will erase that portion if she
asks you to after further consideration. You may have to erase
it later, or she may not tell you the story at all, but once
you allow "off the record" stories, she may continue with more
and more, and you will end up with almost no recorded interview
at all. "Off the record" information is only useful if you
yourself are researching a subject and this is the only way
you can get the information. It has no value if your purpose
is to collect information for later use by other researchers.
16. Don't switch the recorder off and on. It is much better
to waste a little tape on irrelevant material than to call
attention to the tape recorder by a constant on-off operation.
For this reason, I do not recommend the stop-start switches
available on some mikes. If your mike has such a switch, tape
it to the "on" position--then forget it. Of course you can turn
off the recorder if the telephone rings or if someone interrupts
17. Interviews usually work out better if there is no one
present except the narrator and the interviewer. Sometimes
two or more narrators can be successfully recorded, but usually
each one of them would have been better alone.
18. End the interview at a reasonable time. An hour and
a half is probably the maximum. First, you must protect your
narrator against overfatigue; second, you will be tired even
if she isn't. Some narrators tell you very frankly if they
are tired, or their spouses will. Otherwise, you must plead
fatigue, another appointment, or no more tape.
19. Don't use the interview to show off your knowledge,
vocabulary, charm, or other abilities. Good interviewers do
not shine; only their interviews do.
From Willa K. Baum's Oral History for the Local Historical Society