Smithsonian Institution
Search
Festival Blog
Festival Radio
Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

The Interview

The memories, stories, and traditions of the people you interview grow out of firsthand knowledge and experience. Created and shaped in community life, they are continually being adapted and changed to meet new circumstances and needs. When interviewing members of your family or local community, be sure to seek out not only what they can tell you about the past, but 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 special foodways and rituals are part of community celebrations and why? What skills and abilities are needed to practice a particular craft or trade? How are these skills learned, mastered, and passed on to younger generations?

Whenever possible, ask the tradition-bearer you are interviewing for stories and anecdotes about the topic you are interested in. Stories are important sources of information for the community researcher — they encapsulate attitudes and beliefs, wisdom and knowledge that lie at the heart of a person's identity and experience.

Remember that the stories and memories you collect are valuable not necessarily because they represent historical facts, but because they embody human truths — 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 people tell, and the cultural traditions they preserve, speak volumes about what they value and how they bring meaning to their lives and to the lives of those around them.

Every interview that you do will be unique. We hope the advice and suggestions offered here will help you on your journey of cultural discovery.

Getting Started

What is the goal of your research? What are you curious about? What do you want to find out? Do you want to learn about a special celebration in your community? Document traditional customs in your family? Find out what it was like when your mother was growing up? The best way to begin is to decide on the focus of your interview. This will determine whom you choose to interview and what sorts of questions you ask. Having a clearly defined goal is key to conducting a successful interview.

Once you’ve determined the focus of your interview, then what? Whom should you interview first? You might want to begin by thinking about yourself and your own interests. What sorts of questions would you like someone to ask you? What kind of responses do you think they would elicit? This will help you prepare for the interview experience. If possible, try to conduct your first interview with someone with whom you feel very comfortable, such as a close relative or a neighbor you know well. Over the course of the interview, you’ll probably pick up clues to other sources: “ Aunt Judith can really tell some stories about those days,” or “ You should ask Antonio Martinez — he’s the real master.”

What if you don’t already know someone to interview about the topic you are interested in? The best way to find people is by asking other people. Chances are you know someone who knows just the person you’re looking for! Friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, librarians, folklorists, and local historians can all help point you in the right direction. Local newspapers, community bulletin boards, and senior citizen centers are also good sources of information.

The interview should take place in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. The home of the person you are interviewing is usually the best place, but there may also be other settings that would be appropriate, such as your tradition-bearer’s workplace, a church hall, or a community center. Productive interviews can sometimes take place at regularly occurring events, such as family dinners, holiday celebrations, and work gatherings. These are often the occasions when stories are told and traditional customs observed.

Equipment

An important first step in conducting an interview is to consider the equipment you will need. Tape-recording and note-taking are the most common means of recording folklife and oral history. In most situations, tape-recording is preferable, as it allows you to document your traditionbearer’s stories and experiences completely and accurately, as well as capture the inflections, tone, pauses, and other subtleties of performance.

At first, the people you interview might feel a little uncomfortable with a tape recorder, but after the interview gets going, chances are they’ll forget that it is even there! Always keep a pen and paper with you during a tape-recorded interview, so you can note important points or jot down follow-up questions that come to mind while your traditionbearer is speaking.

A small cassette tape recorder with either a built-in or an external (plug-in) microphone is a good choice. Use highquality 60- or 90-minute cassettes (tapes that are longer than 45 minutes a side can stretch or break). And always bring more blank tapes with you to an interview than you think you will need, so that you don’t get caught short. It’s also a good idea to have spare batteries, if your recorder isn’t the plug-in type or in case you find yourself in a setting where an electrical outlet is not available. Be sure to check your batteries in advance to make sure they are fresh. Remember to pack an extension cord — it can come in handy.

Practice using the tape recorder before your interview, so that you are familiar with how it works. If you are at ease with your equipment, it will help to put your traditionbearer at ease too.

Another important piece of equipment is a camera. It allows you to capture a visual record of the person you are interviewing and is especially valuable if you are documenting a process, such as your grandmother stitching a quilt or making a favorite family recipe. A camera, with the addition of a close-up attachment, can also be used to copy old family photographs and other documentary materials, such as letters, birth records, and scrapbooks.

You should take notes on the subject matter, date, and location of your photographs, so that you can prepare a photo log  for each roll of film you develop.

You may also want to use a video camera to capture a special community event or to visually record a traditional process or a family member recounting his or her life story.

Before the Interview

Get your tradition-bearer’s permission for the interview in advance, and schedule a time and place that he or she is comfortable with. Make it clear if you plan to use a tape recorder (see the above discussion of equipment) and ask permission.

Be certain from the start that your tradition-bearer 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? Organize an exhibition? 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? Let the person you are interviewing know.

Do your homework. It’s always a good idea to conduct some background research about the subject you are interested in at the library, on the Internet, or by visiting a museum or archive. Books, pamphlets, photographs, maps, family documents — any or all of these can help give you information on your subject before you go on an interview. Knowing more can help you ask better questions and yields a richer interview.

Prepare a list of questions ahead of time. Make sure they are clear, concise, and open-ended. Avoid questions that elicit simple yes or no answers and steer away from broad generalities. Questions that begin with “ How ” “ What ” or “ Why ” usually elicit a more complete response than questions that begin with “ Do ” or “ Did. ” For example, “How did you learn your trade? ” or “ What was it like learning your trade? ” instead of “ Did you like learning your trade? ”

Know which questions are key, but don’t be tied to your list. The questions are meant simply to help focus and guide the interview.

Structure the interview. Think of the interview as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Build on your questions and link them together in a logical way.

During the Interview

Place the tape recorder within easy reach so that you can change tapes and adjust the controls when necessary, and position the microphone so that you can clearly record both your tradition-bearer’s voice and your own.

Try to eliminate or minimize any loud background noises, such as the radio or television, that could interfere with the taping. You’d be surprised just how distracting a loudticking clock or clattering dishes can be!

Always run a test before you begin an interview. Tape about a minute of conversation and then play it back to make sure you are recording properly and getting the best possible sound. A good procedure is to state your name, your tradition- bearer’s name, and the date, location, and topic of the interview. This serves both to test the equipment and to orally “ label ” the tape. When you are confident that all your equipment is in good working order, you are ready to begin.

Start with a question or a topic that will help put your tradition-bearer at ease. You might want to begin with some basic biographical questions, such as “ Where were you born?” “Where did you grow up?” Or perhaps you could ask about a story you once heard him or her tell about the topic you are interested in. These questions are easy to answer and can help break the ice. Remember to avoid questions that will bring only 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 “ How did that happen?”

Show interest and listen carefully to what your traditionbearer is saying. Keep eye contact and encourage him or her with nods and smiles.

Participate in the conversation without dominating it. Try not to interrupt and don’t be afraid of silences — give the person you are interviewing time to think and respond. Be alert to what your tradition-bearer wants to talk about and be prepared to detour from your list of questions if he or she takes up a rich subject you hadn’t even thought of!

Make use of visual materials whenever possible. Old photographs, family photo albums, scrapbooks, letters, birth certificates, family Bibles, tools, 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 tradition-bearer the impression that you think some of what he or she is saying isn’t worth recording. Never run the recorder without your tradition-bearer’s knowledge.

Number each tape as you take it out of the tape recorder so that your tapes don’t get mixed up. Later you can add all the other necessary information to the label (see below).

Near the end of the interview, take a quick look over your prepared list of questions to see if you’ve covered everything you wanted to ask.

Be sensitive to the needs of your tradition-bearer. If he or she is getting tired, stop the interview and schedule another session. Between one and two hours is usually just about the right amount of time for an interview.

After the Interview

Make sure that you get the person you interviewed to sign a written release and that you comply with any restrictions that he or she requests. Always ask permission to use the results of the interview in the ways you initially told your tradition-bearer, such as to write a family history or do a school project. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, and respect confidences and privacy.

Label all your tapes and notes with the date, traditionbearer’s name, location of the interview, your name (as the interviewer), project title, and any brief thematic information that might be helpful.

Make notes about the interview while it is still fresh in your mind — jot down impressions, observations, important themes, contextual information, ideas for follow-up.

Prepare a tape log (topic-by-topic summary) of the contents of the recordings as soon as possible after the interview. You can use the counter on the tape recorder to note the location of each new topic. With this tape log, you will later be able to go back and select portions of the tape to listen to and transcribe (word-for-word translation of the taperecorded interview). Complete tape transcriptions are important, but they are also very time-consuming. A good compromise is to do a combination of logging and transcribing: log the general contents of the tape and transcribe, word for word, the parts that you think you might want to quote directly.

Store the tapes in a safe place where they are protected from heat, water, and other damage.

Be sure to send a written thank you to your tradition-bearer and, if possible, include a copy of the tape(s).

< previous  |  next >

"In their rememberings are their truths."
- Studs Terkel, Hard Times

"Folklife is community life and values, artfully expressed in myriad forms and interactions."
- Mary Hufford, Folklorist