Conducting Effective Oral Interviews
- Newsletter of the BCG
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, "Conducting Effective
Oral Interviews," OnBoard 2 (September 1996):
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.
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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
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.
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,
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, CGRS
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
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