Oral history interviews offer a special perspective on our past. They not only provide another source for researchers but also provide a recorded image or voice of the past. Audio and video recordings are approached in a slightly different manner and these differences will be noted by [A] or [V]. Here are guidelines for conducting oral history interviews.
Philosophy: Oral history is voluntary. Your approach should respect the memories and versions of past events as the interviewee presents them.
Equipment: Become familiar with your equipment before your first interview. If you are the operator of the equipment and the interviewer you should make an effort to minimize adjustments to the equipment after you have begun the interview.
Formats: [A] Use a standard 60-minute cassette HG (high grade) or better. [V] Use 8 mm HG or HI-8. VHS is good, but newer 8mm or digital formats are better.
Power: [A] Use fresh batteries and carry and AC adapter as a backup. [V] Use freshly charged batteries or an AC adapter.
Planning: Prepare for your interview by reading published materials as available. If your interview is of a family member, you may want to review genealogy and old photos. Create a questionnaire or an outline for your interview. Create a checklist of equipment needed for the interview.
Questionnaire: Create a questionnaire or outline to guide your interview. It should include an introduction of who is being interviewed, who is doing the interview, the date and location.
A biographical approach provides a good starting point, so begin the interview with questions about birthplace, parents, etc. Continue asking questions that develop a chronological pattern. This will allow the interviewer to control the interview. If you have approached the interviewee for specific information then plan to focus your questions when the chronology is appropriate. For example, if you have approached the interviewee to collect information about the Great Depression, be prepared to ask more questions about the 1930s, etc.
Include questions on how this task or activity was done. Consider opportunities to ask about "firsts" or "lasts". Ask for dates, costs, distance, time involved, and other quantitative concerns. Make notes as the interview progresses to ask follow-up questions. Your questions should be open-ended. So ask, "What did you do when you completed high school?" Not, "Did you join the Marines after leaving school?" Close your interview by asking the interviewee if there is anything to add to the recording. This is also a good time to ask about photographs, documents or other items in the interviewee's home or office or that you may have brought along. Your closing should be recorded so you and others will know the recording is complete. This might be a simple closing such as "This concludes this interview with John Doe."
Release Form: All interviews should have a written release form. The form should include the interviewee's printed name and signature; the interviewer's printed name and signature, date, and general location (city or county). The organization and or project should be included with an explanation of the purpose of the interview. The purpose might include family history, school project, historical organization, etc. It should also state whether the interview is to be used in a book, video, or other similar project and where the recording will be placed for preservation.
Spatial arrangement of interview: [A and V] Sit across a table if available. [V] Avoid a bright light behind the person such as an open window. [A and V] Ask everyone to remain quiet during the interview, and avoid noisy appliances. Turn off TVs and radios. [V] Use extra lighting only if you are very familiar with the results. Many newer camcorders will adjust for poor lighting conditions. If using a remote microphone (any mic not built-in), remember to position the mic close to the interviewee and speak loud enough as you interview.
Test your equipment by asking the interviewee to say his or her name. Rewind the tape and playback to test the sound. If you believe the audio level is too low, then ask the interviewee to speak louder or reposition the mic.
At the conclusion of the interview remove the tapes from the recorder (camcorder) and remove the tabs from the back of the cassette. 8mm tapes will have a sliding red tab. In either case this will prevent the tape from being recorded over or erased.
Label the tapes with the name of the interviewee, interviewer, date and number of tapes used. If you have used two tapes one tape should read 1of 2 and the other 2 of 2.
Processing your tapes.Store your tapes in a safe place. Avoid electromagnetic fields such as air conditioners, TVs, computers or other appliances whitch may erase or damage the recording. Store in a cool place and avoid dusty or damp conditions. Make an index of the tapes you record by interviewee and topics. Consider transcribing the tapes. Although transcriptions are time consuming, they are likely to help you focus your project more effectively.
Recontact the interviewee through a thank you letter. If possible make a copy of the recording and include it with the letter. Preserve your oral history(s) by placing a copy of the tape or transcript in a local institution such as a historical society or library. Placement in the National Montford Point Museum is also encouraged.
Creating oral histories can be a very rewarding process and will leave a lasting legacy of your organization, community and family. For assistance in developing Montford Point Marines related research projects please contact: James E Stewart Jr, President , Maryland chapter 28, 5708 Chris Mar Ave, Clinton, MD 20735. (301)877-7610