People & Setting || Beforehand || During the Interview ||
Afterward || Sample Information & Release Form
In their rememberings are their truths
The creative expressions of the elderly-- their stories, memories, traditions, skills, sayings, customs, and keepsakes-- are rooted in a lifetime of experience. When interviewing older relatives or neighbors, be sure to seek out not only what they can tell you about the past, but also what they can tell you about life in the present. How have certain family traditions evolved? What holiday customs are practiced today that weren't a generation ago?
What can they tell you about the ecology of your area--the seasonal cycles of life, the plants, the animals and their habitats? What are some of the skills they have acquired from their years of experience that can be taught to future generations?
Very importantly, remember that the anecdotes and stories you collect are valuable not necessarily because they represent the historic truth, but because they represent a truth--a particular way of looking at the world. As Ann Banks writes in First Person America, "The way people make sense of their lives, the web of meaning and identity they weave for themselves, has a significance and importance of its own." The stories they tell, and the traditions they preserve, speak volumes about how our elders have brought meaning to their lives--and to the lives of those around them.
Every interview that you do will be unique. These brief suggestions should be helpful in most circumstances.
People & Setting
You might want to conduct your first interview with someone with whom you feel very comfortable, such as an older neighbor that you know well or a favorite relative. Over the course of the conversation, your narrator will give you clues to other sources: "Junior Wills ran the department then - you should talk to him" or "Aunt Violet can really tell some tales about those days."
The interview should take place in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. The home of your narrator is usually the best place, but there may also be other settings that would be appropriate, such as your informant's workplace, the neighborhood store, or even a park bench. Some of the most productive interviews take place in natural contexts, such as family dinners, reunions, and holiday celebrations. These are often the occasions when family stories are told and traditional customs observed.
Get your informant's permission for the interview in advance, and schedule a time that he or she is comfortable with. Make it clear if you plan to use a tape recorder (see the earlier discussion of equipment).
Be certain from the very outset that your informant understands the purpose of the interview, and what will happen to the tapes and/or notes afterwards. Is it a school assignment? Are you planning to write a family history? Publish a newsletter about folklife in your area? Are the tapes going to be kept with family scrapbooks? Will they be deposited in a local library, archive, or historical society? Follow the ethics of interviewing and let your informant know.
Do your homework---prepare a list of questions ahead of time. Make sure they are clear, concise, and evocative; avoid questions that elicit simple yes or no answers. During the interview, know which questions are key, but don't be tied to your list. The questions are meant simply as a framework.
Occasionally, you may even want to conduct interviews unstructured by questions, in which your informant just reminisces freely. This kind of interview is valuable because it allows your narrator to structure and interpret his or her own life story, and to talk about what is most important to him or her. You will probably want to follow this interview with one in which you ask specific questions clarifying points or soliciting more information.
During the Interview
If you are using a recorder, tape a short introduction stating the place and date of the interview and the names of the persons involved (otherwise, you can just write this information in your notebook). Begin with a question or a topic that you know will elicit a full reply from your narrator - maybe ask about a story you once heard him or her tell. Or you might want to start with some basic biographical questions, such as "Where and when were you born?" These questions are easy to answer and can help break the ice.
Throughout the interview, remember to avoid questions that will bring a yes or no response. And, in order to get as much specific information as possible, be sure to ask follow-up questions:
"Could you explain?" "Can you give me an example?" or "When did that happen?"
Show interest, and listen carefully to what your informant is saying. Encourage him or her with nods and smiles. Take an active part in the conversation without dominating it. Be alert to what your narrator wants to talk about--don't be afraid to detour from your list of questions if he or she takes up a rich subject you hadn't even thought of.
Bring props into play. Old photographs, family photo albums, scrapbooks, letters, heirlooms, and mementos help stimulate memories and trigger stories.
Don't turn the tape recorder on and off while the interview is in progress. Not only are you likely to miss important information, but you will give your informant the impression that you think some of what he or she is saying isn't worth recording. Never run the recorder without your narrator's knowledge.
Be sensitive to the needs of your informant. If he or she is getting tired, stop the interview and schedule another session.
After the interview, label all your tapes and notes with appropriate names, dates, and places. Ideally, all tapes should be indexed and/or transcribed as soon as possible after the interview, while it is still fresh in your mind. At the very least, you'll want to listen to the tapes and jot down the contents of the interview in outline form. With this outline, you will later be able to go back and select portions of the tape to transcribe.
Always ask permission to use the results of the interview in the ways you initially told your informant, such as to write a family history or start a local archive. Comply with any restrictions your informant requests, and get him or her to sign a written release (see sample below). Don't make promises you can't keep, and respect confidences and privacy. If you are asked to erase part of a tape, do so. We have provided a section on ethics that we encourage you to read.
Sample Information and Release Form
May we use this material for scholarly and educational
research and publications?
May we include your name?
Before publishing diaries, memoirs, letters, or other written materials, you would be wise to find out about copyright regulations. The Copyright Office at the Library of Congress will send a packet of information upon request (write to Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540).