Before the Interview

Before arriving for the interview, the historian should double-check to make sure that he or she has all the necessary equipment and that it is functioning. Familiarity with equipment will avoid any embarrassing moments at the start of the interview.
An interviewer should bring the following items to each interview: a recorder (either digital or cassette) and any necessary microphones and cables; power and extension cords; batteries; an ample supply of cassettes or memory media; pen and paper; question list; access agreement; and any supporting documentation such as maps or photographs. Ideally, run two recorders during the interview, which will eliminate the problems that result if the historian's sole recorder malfunctions during the interview. If traveling to conduct interviews, the historian certainly should have backups for everything or at least the means to obtain them on short notice. When traveling on temporary duty to conduct an interview, make sure that the travel orders authorize the emergency procurement of supplies, including a recorder. All your preparation will be wasted if your equipment does not work.

TIP: When using cassettes to record an interview, advance the tape past the leader-the white or clear segment of tape at the beginning and end of most cassettes-to ensure that the initial portion of the interview is recorded. Use a ninety-minute standard-size cassette. (Sixty-minute tapes often prove too short, and concern about the relative strength of ninety-minute cassettes is unfounded.)

Once settled in the interview location, position the recorder so the microphone can register the voice of each participant. The historian should make sure that he or she is positioned both to take notes and to monitor the recorder so that, for example, recording does not stop during the middle of an answer. Assess the surroundings. If there is, for example, annoying background noise such as an air conditioner or radio, see if it can be turned off. If necessary, use a separate microphone to ensure sound clarity. Place the recorder (or microphone) on a thin piece of foam rubber, such as a mouse pad, or a pad of paper or magazine to insulate it from vibrations. When everything is set-up and working the interview can begin.

The Interview

Before starting the interview, briefly recount the purpose of the interview and general plan for the interview. Explain how the session will be conducted. Tell the interviewee that you may ask follow-up questions to those on the basic list. Remind the Interviewee that he or she need not hurry into a response simply because the recorder is running. Do not worry about the interviewee feeling uncomfortable in the presence of a recorder; an interviewee usually forgets about it once he or she begins talking. Answer any questions the interviewee may have, discuss potential classification issues (the time to find out that the interviewee may give classified information is before the interview starts), and have the interviewee sign the access agreement. The access agreement in Appendix C is DA Form 7273-R, Access Agreement for Oral History Materials. Use this form. AR 870-5, Military History: Responsibilities, Policies, and Procedures (29 January 1999), requires that access agreements be completed for all interviews, and this access agreement meets regulatory requirements and has been approved by the Department of the Army's Office of the Judge Advocate General. Interviewers should explain the implications of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to interviewees before the interview session-that also means that the historian needs to understand FOIA and its impact before the interview.

TIP: Be conscious of classification procedures and guidelines. Don't let the conversation reach a classification level that is too high. Tell the interviewee at the beginning of the session the highest level of classified information that you want to cover. Before concluding, discuss the interview's proper classification level with the interviewee. If an interview contains classified information, be sure to mark the recording media appropriately!

Turn on the recorder. Begin the interview by identifying the interviewer, the interviewee, the purpose of the interview, the date, and the location of the session. For example:

This is Dr. John Lonnquest of the Office of History, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Today my colleague, Eric Reinert, and I are going to interview Major Kim Colloton, commander of the FEST of the Baghdad FEST-A. The interview is being conducted at the CPA headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq. Today is August 2, 2003.

Ask the interviewee whether he or she is sitting for the interview voluntarily, and then ask whether the interviewee has any objections to the interview being used by historians or researchers (it is helpful to add "with the understanding that the interviewee will be quoted or cited accurately"). Getting this information recorded is important in case the accompanying paperwork is lost. Then, start with the first question or topic on the topic-question list.

TIP: Like with sports, interviews work best when everyone is "warmed up." For the first question, ask something easy to answer, such as an inquiry about an individual's previous assignments. Anything is fine so long as it makes the interviewee comfortable and gets him or her talking.

Guidelines for Successful Interviewing

There is no way to predict the course of an interview. The personalities of the participants, the material to be covered, even the location of the interview all can affect the nature of the interview. The following guidelines, however, should provide enough general and practical guidance to conduct a successful interview regardless of the circumstances or the type of interview.

a. Do be confident and relaxed. Your background study should have familiarized you with the material to be covered during the interview. Even if you do not feel fully prepared, remember that an oral history interview is just an extended discussion with a subject-matter expert. The interviewee should have information and knowledge that the historian lacks, so do not worry about asking questions or requesting that the interviewee explain something if it is not clear to you. (If it is not clear to you during the interview, then it likely will not be clear to someone reading the transcript at a later date.)

b. Do maintain control of the interview. Responsibility for initiating and directing the course of an oral history interview falls to the interviewer. The historian, while observing military and social courtesies, must maintain control of the interview session despite the rank or status of the interviewee. If the conversation veers off in an unexpected direction, do not worry. Wait for a convenient stopping point (that is, if you do not wish to pursue that course of discussion) and use the topic-question list to get back on track.

c. Do follow the topic-question list but be flexible. Do not blindly follow your topic-question list! Remain alert to the conversation. Listen to the answers. Do you need to ask a question that is not on your prepared list? Historians who will not deviate from a prepared list miss opportunities to collect information. Keep in mind that the interviewee may have important information that the prepared list does not address.

d. Do not ask questions that can be answered with a "yes" or a "no" without following up. Yes/no questions can be useful for nailing down a specific point, but they generally are best followed with broader questions that permit more expansive answers.

e. Do focus on the interviewee's experiences and firsthand knowledge. If the discussion moves to subjects that did not directly involve the individual, try to develop the difference between fact and conjecture. If, for example, the interviewee says that General X felt a certain way about something, ask why the interviewee believes that. Is it just the interviewee's belief or is there some factual foundation for the statement? With a soldier involved in an operation, focus the questions on what he or she saw, did, and felt. Ask about specific equipment that the soldier carried and used. Avoid secondhand stories and accounts; they are hearsay and only pull the course of the interview away from the individual's firsthand knowledge.

f. Do not ask leading questions, suggest answers to questions, or anticipate answers. Instead ask general questions and then follow up with more specific questions if necessary. For example, initial questions like 'Was the most feared German weapon that you encountered the 88-mm.?" or "Was the lack of mobilization time the greatest obstacle for your unit to overcome?" suggest particular answers and will usually bring a simple affirmative response from the interviewee. Ask instead a more general question-'What was the most feared German weapon?" or 'What was the great challenge your unit faced?"-and then ask follow-up questions. After the interviewee has answered the initial question, you can ask the more specific question (e.g., 'What about the German 88?" or "Tell me about your mobilization process.") without influencing the interviewee's reaction to your initial question.

g. Do ask direct questions to focus answers. Use a specific frame of reference, such as "during the drive toward Baghdad," that gives the interviewee a starting point around which to organize his response. Try to maintain a chronology for events; for example, ask when one action occurred in relation to another.

TIP: When interviewing someone about an operation, one of the most useful questions to ask is 'What happened next?"

h. Do ask follow-up questions. In addition to making the interview feel more like a real conversation, such queries may help an interviewee to recall specifics otherwise overlooked and also to clarify any possible contradictions with earlier statements or written sources. Asking the interviewee to explain some subject is often a useful means for obtaining useful clarification on a subject. A frequently successful approach is to acknowledge some confusion or incomplete knowledge on your part before asking additional questions. Follow-up questions that request examples are particularly useful after asking general questions. If an interviewee, for example, says, 'We always had problems with getting our command to do X," ask for an example so that the interviewee's experiences and thinking are fully understood.

i. Do take notes during the interview. (This is perhaps the part of the job that is most neglected by historians conducting interviews in the field.) Interview notes are often vital sources of information; if an interview is not transcribed immediately, the interview notes will be the only source of information about the contents of the interview. Interview notes are useful during the interview for indicating when follow-up questions are needed, for organizing one's thoughts, and for preparing a preliminary word list of items requiring verification. Writing down key words and topics as they are mentioned during the interview is also helpful for preparing a subject index of the tape.

j. Do not interrupt the interviewee in the middle of an answer. Do not ask the interviewee to explain or spell out a word or acronym while he or she is speaking. This will only disrupt the interviewee's train of thought. Make a note of it and then ask for clarification at the end of the interview.

k. Do be respectful, courteous, and attentive during the interview. Do not argue with the interviewee. Do not confront the interviewee in a manner that challenges his or her integrity. If he or she says something that you believe is incorrect or with which you do not agree, ask the interviewee to explain why he or she holds that opinion. Do remember that the interview is about the interviewee, not you, so keep personal opinions, comments, and judgments to yourself.

TIP: Pay attention to your responses and interview style. Vary your verbal responses and combine them with gestures. Avoid a steady diet of "Uh huh."

l. Do not be afraid of silence. A pause may signify that the interviewee is thinking and perhaps formulating a further response. That information could be lost if the interviewer is too quick with the next question.

m. Do not pretend to be an expert on a subject if you are not. Do not worry if you do not know a lot about a particular interview topic. Your task is to elicit what the interviewee knows about the subject.

n. Do not worry if you find that you cannot cover everything you wanted to cover during the interview. This is a common experience. Focus on getting solid answers to the questions you can ask.

TIP: Be aware that the interview may be stressful for the interviewee. The interviewee may be tired and harried from an exhausting day or preoccupied with current work issues. Moreover, a soldier being interviewed after a combat action may be filled with emotions with which he or she has yet to deal. Pay attention to the interviewee's body language.

o. Do not conduct a marathon interview session. Both the interviewee and the interviewer will become fatigued, so limiting sessions to no more than two or three hours is advisable. Take short breaks (perhaps when changing tapes) as necessary.

p. Do give the interviewee an opportunity to express thoughts that may have occurred to him or her but that did not fit with any of your questions. One of the closing interview questions should provide the interviewee with the opportunity to discuss relevant matters that may not have occurred to the oral historian. This question can be as simple as "Is there some topic that I should have asked you about?" or "Is there anything that you would like to add on this subject?"

q. Do ask the interviewee upon the conclusion of the interview to explain the meaning of acronyms and jargon. This is also the time to request additional information on any unfamiliar subjects or individuals mentioned during the interview. Ask for proper spellings, if necessary. (Again, during the interview, the historian should write down any words or terms that she or he needs explained.) The end of an interview is also a good time to ask 'Whom else should I interview?"

r. Do thank the interviewee for his or her time and ask whether there are any questions.

End of Part III
To be continued…
Stephen J. Lofgren

Number of Visits: 3901


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