Hints on Oral History

This article was written in 1981. Please substitute current recording equipment for those mentioned in article.

Oral history has become popular among many local historians, genealogists and historical minded groups. As a result many questions arise among these people as to who to interview, how to conduct an interview (i.e. the type of questions to ask, the use of questionnaires, interviewer preparation), what equipment to use during the sessions, how to store the tapes after the interview and what are the legal ramifications. This essay will not try to answer the first two questions since much of this depends on the interviewer and how the individual sessions progress. This last aspect partially must be played by ear. However, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin has suggested some hints and ideas concerning the remaining questions about interviewing.

Any oral interview requires two general pieces of equipment for the interviewer, a pad and pencil to jot down any notes or further questions and the tape recorder. The type of recorder and tape to be used are both very important to the quality and durability of the recorded sessions. It is best to use an open reel tape recorder, that is, a tape not self-contained in a cassette. The quality of recording on this kind of tape is much better than the cassette variety. Any tapes tend to “leak” sound and the chance of preventing this is improved in the open reel tape. The major drawback with this type of equipment is that it can be very expensive and beyond the reach of most interviewers. One way of getting around this obstacle is to borrow the equipment from a school district or business but, again, this may be difficult. It is obvious that most people will be forced to use sate kind of cassette recorder either because of the expense or “field” convenience. With this in mind several hints can be given involving the cassette recorder and tape.

Many cassette recording machines come equipped with both built in and external microphones. In any interview the external microphone should always be used because it will not pick up the internal sounds of the machine which tend to blur or cloud the clarity of the recording. Once the recorder is chosen the length of tape to be used must also be considered. The 60-minute length is best because longer tapes have a tendency to snarl and there by destroy all or part of the interview. Anything shorter than 60 minutes would be of limited value because of the “leads” or unrecorded parts of tapes that must be left on the beginning and end of each tape or cassette. This, obviously, limits the amount of information that can be put on any one tape and the constant interruption of an interviewer to change the tape would make the session less than successful. The blank spaces left on either end of a tape are necessary for possible splicing, the recording of specific bibliographic information (tape number, date, name of interviewer, etc.), or for the transference of the interview to another tape, the length of which might be a bit shorter than the master. This would result in the loss of part of the interview. The cassette casing itself is also of sane importance. The interviewer should always try to use the type held together by screws and not by glue. If the tape is twisted or damaged then the screw style case can be opened, the tape repaired or transferred. This could not be done if the cassette were glued. Once the equipment is obtained the next step is the placing of it in an interview session.

The key to the interview is to make the subject as comfortable as possible. The best place for an interview is in the home of the subject since that is a place that he or she can feel the least uneasy about the discussion. In the home the best roan is also important. The living roan or den is usually best because it is usually free from background noise. The kitchen is poor because of such things as a noisy refrigerator. The living roan or den is also best because the subject probably spends a good deal of time in it and feels at ease. Carpeting in either of these roams also can serve to hold down noise. The subject should be allowed to sit anywhere in the roan that he or she desires and the interview adjusted to this situation. The interviewer should not be afraid to move small furniture around since it can easily be replaced.

Once the setting is decided the placing of the recorder and microphone is also Important. A low, small table, if possible, is the best piece of furniture to use for the placement of equipment. This type of table is the right height for the sitting subject and can be moved easily to the side of the subject. Try to avoid having the recorder and microphone in front of the subject. This tends to make the subject nervous and the interview might lose its naturalness. Always try to place the microphone on a book to cut down on vibration and hence background noise on the tape. Once the interview is complete the next question is how to store and use the tapes.

The ideal situation is for the tapes to be transcribed but since this is very expensive the best alternative is to write an abstract. This device can include such things as the tape information itself (tape number, date, subject etc.) and the various topics covered on the tape with the approximate times at which they occur. Next the tapes themselves should be transferred to reel tapes (the main reason for leaving the space at the beginning and end of the cassette tapes). If this is impossible or too expensive then the possibility of a second cassette should be considered especially if the tape is to be used often and by several people. This is a precaution to prevent the destruction or damage to the information which occurs with use of the tapes. Once this is done then the effort to preserve the tapes themselves should be looked at.

At the very least the primary tape (master tape) should be rewound at least once a year. This will help prevent leaking and “clutter” f ran leaking. The temperature (in the 70’s) and the humidity (about 50 per cent) should be kept stable in the storage place. (Tapes that have been stored under conditions of extreme heat or cold should not be played for at least 24 hours so that the tapes can stabilize). The most important problem for the interviewer, and one as yet still in the courts, is the legal side of the tapes and their use. According to Dale Treleven, Oral History Coordinator at the State Historical Society, the following consideration is important:

Any historical agency or other group creating tape-recorded oral history interviews should require each interviewee to sign a legal agreement form. The completed form is a statement that the interviewee understands the terms and conditions under which the interview was completed, and that he/she further understands that the interview tapes and written summaries thereto may be used by future researchers.

Further, it is important to recognize that both of the people involved in an interview have rights. Thus, Treleven points out:

Copyright law recognizes that each person whose voice is recorded on the tape is a joint-owner of rights to that recording. Thus, the interviewer also should sign a legal agreement form, assigning his or her rights to the agency sponsoring the taping project or serving as the final repository for the interview materials.

Finally, any restrictions on use of the information in the interview, restrictions that either the interviewee or the interviewer wishes to impose, should be clearly indicated in the legal agreement.

If the above hints and ideas are followed, as recommended by the State Historical Society, then the quality, longevity and accessibility of this type of unique historical information will be greatly enhanced.

Tim Siebert
December 1981


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