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Skillbuilding: Conducting Effective Oral Interviews


From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
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Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, "Conducting Effective Oral Interviews," OnBoard 2 (September 1996): 24.

In the gathering of information and documentation, oral interviews get short shrift. The limitations of verbal evidence are well-known. Memories are prone to lapses, distortions, and errors. Yet genealogists would be hard pressed to name any source that is totally reliable. Proper interviewing techniques can minimize the likelihood of misinformation and considerably enhance one's knowledge and sense of family history.

IDENTIFYING GOALS

Interviews may be designed to collect facts or to gather anecdotal material and other family "color." Some personal situations or client assignments require a limited thrust. Ideally, both goals should be pursued, but not necessarily at the same time.

TIMING THE INTERVIEW

Genealogical manuals commonly recommend family interviews as a beginning point. However, it is best to visit with informants at least twice: once when the initial research is undertaken and again after a substantial amount of research is completed.

The first interview should be short. Its goal is to gather the essentials — names, approximate dates, places, and stories about the family origins — as a foundation for documentary research. But it is unwise to belabor a contact at this stage or to introduce subjects that would make the informant uncomfortable.

Subsequent interviews exploit two factors: the researcher's expanded knowledge of the subject and the rapport already established with the informant. When the researcher shares material found in sources elsewhere, it often jogs new memories. Beyond this point, follow-up interviews can fruitfully explore a broad range of historical and personal issues.

PLANNING CONTENT

In both stages, two guidelines apply.

  • A basic list of questions should be prepared in advance. It will not be adhered to rigidly — unexpected gems are often mined when informants are allowed to venture down their own paths — but a well-planned list ensures that all crucial ground is explored and helps to keep the interview focused.
  • Questions should be phrased carefully. To ensure more-accurate recollections, one should avoid "leading" questions. Instead of asking, Wasn't his father named John? one would ask, What was his father's name?

    Also, the best questions are open-ended ones. The skillful interviewer avoids any question that can be answered with a simple yes or no.

Follow-up interviews offer immense potential. This is the time to pose questions about information found in the records. But it is also the opportunity to seek and record emotions not revealed by genealogical documents— eliciting from the informant personal opinions as to why certain things happened, how he or she felt, or what certain experiences were like.

Questions can be formulated around historic events, such as:

  • How did your family support itself during the Depression?
  • How was your daily life affected?

or explore personal situations:

  • Who attended you at childbirth?
  • Which birth was the most memorable and why?
  • How soon after childbirth did you return to regular duties?
  • Who is the oldest person in your family that you remember?
  • How close were you to your grandfather?
  • What did you like/dislike about him?
  • What words of wisdom did he impart to you?

USING ORAL HISTORY

Aside from the clues to be mined, oral history can add depth and human interest to compiled genealogies or individual biographies. To illustrate:

Meals were important to Italian-American life, and the Vallarelli household was no different. To the immigrant generation, food was a symbol of life, a communion of the family — the product of the father's labor, prepared by the mother. Wasting food was a sin; refusing food, an insult. Rosa Vallarelli asked every visitor, "Did you eat?" and then she set a plate.1

DOCUMENTING NOTES

A full recording of sources is just as important for oral interviews as with any other type of research notes. To use the above excerpt as an example.

1. Author's interview, 27 April 1993, with Isabel Vallarelli (29 First Avenue, Harrison, N.Y.), aged 76, daughter of Felice and Rosa (Albanese) Vallarelli.

PARTING THOUGHT

An African proverb holds "When an old person dies, a whole library disappears." Thus, an effective interview not only asks and records who, when, and where but also how, what, and why.

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, CGRS

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.



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