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Research Tip 11: Conducting Effective Interviews

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG
Although journalists appreciate off-the-cuff comments, oral historians are most successful if their subjects know exactly what will happen during an interview and are prepared beforehand. It is easy to establish this tone at the outset by sending the interviewee a copy of the questions that will be the basis of the exchange, as well as copies of at least some of the photographs, old letters, or newspapers that will be part of the interview. Before sending off a copy of the interview questions, the researcher should review them to ensure they provide the answers he or she is seeking.

The first rule of interviewing is punctuality. Never keep the informant waiting. After the interviewer has been invited in and is seated with the subject, it is helpful to discuss the equipment that will be used. As the tape recorder is shown, it should be turned on so that a few minutes of conversation can be recorded. The same is true of a video camera.

The interviewer should point out that he or she will also be taking notes, in case the recorder fails to do its part. After a few minutes of conversation, the tape recorder or video camera should be rewound and played back. The witness has an opportunity to hear or see himself or herself and hopefully feel reassured that there is nothing to fear or be nervous about as these machines do their work during the interview.

The moments before the interview can also be used to take photographs of the respondent and his or her surroundings. This get-acquainted time also provides opportunity to look at some of the photographs or other memorabilia brought by the interviewer. Perhaps the subject will produce her or his own photo album. The album or other mementos will help the respondent remember and may provide the oral historian with new evidence he or she has not yet seen. This is the right moment to turn on the recorder and begin the interview.

Experienced interviewers never read their questions. The questions have been memorized and blend into the conversation. As the interview progresses, the note pad becomes important. Facial expressions, the eyes, and other non-verbal expressions are noted. Additional questions may come to mind that can be jotted down for inclusion when the moment is appropriate. Reminders of promises made should also be written down, so that they can be kept rather than forgotten, once the interview is over.

After the interview has ended, the oral historian should take time to transcribe the sound or video tape as soon as possible. It will be much easier to understand the respondent's comments while they are still fresh in the interviewer's mind. Within a week of the interview, a transcript should be provided to the interviewee. He or she will then have the opportunity to correct any errors. At this time he or she can even add facts that came to mind after the interview or during the reading of the transcript. After the subject has returned the transcript it is ready for analysis and verification.

Oral and documentary evidence can be verified using many of the same methods. Research Tip 12 will provide some ideas to help researchers evaluate oral and written evidence.


About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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