Before making a trip to visit and interview family members, stock a tote bag with these oral history recording essentials:
- prepared list of interview questions
- memorabilia and family photos: Introducing memorabilia into the interview is a great way to jog memories or assist your source in expanding on them. You also might get some IDs for unfamiliar names and faces. Possible mementos to tuck in your bag include photographs, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, yearbooks and maps. If you’re audio recording, be sure to describe aloud the item you’re showing the interviewee.
- photocopies of relevant documents
- magnifying glass (in case the relative needs it to view photocopies or photos)
- family tree chart and family group sheets: In addition to your questions, bring a chronological outline of your interviewee’s life for reference. I also like to have a family tree chart and family group sheets so I can keep the family straight and let my source fill in the necessary blanks.
- notepad and pen: You never know when your recording device may fail, so keep notes throughout the interview. Additionally, you’ll want to jot down notes on spellings, follow-up questions and other folks to interview.
- digital voice recorder, smartphone with recording app or video recorder: When I’m on the road conducting interviews, my audio recorder of choice is an Olympus handheld digital recorder. But your smartphone, iPad or other tablet computer and an app can do a respectable job. Or you could record your interview with a video recorder or the webcam on your tablet or smartphone. For a telephone interview, you can use a digital recorder hooked up to a telephone handset recording device (usually available through office-supply stores). Or if you’re talking on your smartphone or using an online phone service such as Skype, use an app. Ecamm’s Call Recorder is one option if you’re using Skype on a Mac. Whatever setup you use, test it ahead of time to make sure it’ll work smoothly.
- telephone handset recorder (for phone interviews)
- extension or lapel microphone (optional): Depending on the recording device you choose, you could consider also getting a lapel or extension microphone. Lapel and tabletop extension microphones may offer clearer sound quality than the built-in microphones on a tablet, smartphone or video camera. (If you use a standalone digital recorder, the built-in mic is often sufficient.)
- backup batteries and power cords: Remember to charge or put new batteries in all your devices before the interview begins, and bring the power cords with you in case your interview runs longer than expected or the batteries die. You also may want to pack an extension cord, since you never know where the nearest electrical outlet will be.
- extension cord
- camera (if not bringing smartphone) to photograph any documents or photographs
- portable scanner (optional): A portable scanner is a lifesaver when your relative starts unexpectedly pulling out old family photos and documents.
- two bottles of water: Bring a bottle of water for each of you. As a professional speaker, I’ve learned that ice-cold water tightens the throat, so avoid over-chilling it.
Tip: Ask a question, then wait and really listen to the response. Resist the urge to interrupt, to clarify a point or ask another question. Make a note and come back to it. Don’t correct your subject. Even though you may have a contrary document, let your relative tell you the way he or she remembers the event and make a note of the discrepancy. Show interest in what your subject is saying by nodding, using appropriate facial expressions or occasionally saying “uh-huh.”
Versions of this article appeared in the April 2000 and January/February 2013 issues of Family Tree Magazine. The list is based on information provided by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (2000) and Lisa Louise Cooke (2013). All summaries written by Lisa Louise Cooke.
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