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Oral History Tools of the Trade and Interview Questions

Retired DoD Firefighter

This is Part 4 in a series of articles that provide oral history guidelines for those who share our passion for collecting American fire history before it is lost to the ages.

The pre-plan

In preparation for your interview, you should:

  • Learn as much as you can about the person beforehand.
  • Bring a file folder of archived material.
  • Be prepared with a set of questions to help get the interview started and to keep it going.
  • Check audio and/or video recording equipment before going to the interview and check it again just before the interview session begins. Start each recording with the date, place, and names of participants, including your own.
  • Keep and use notes of names, places, events and dates.
  • Listen carefully to the interviewee. Follow leads in the conversation. Know when to move on to the next question by recognizing when the subject has been fully discussed. You can return to your list of questions at this time.
  • Be reassuring and aware that when telling stories, memories and emotions may surface (joy, sadness, anger). Respect the interviewee's feelings and be gentle.

Interview supplies

Your pre-plan should include a number of supplies you need to record the interview, such as:

  • Digital video and still cameras and/or audio recorder.
  • Extra memory storage.
  • Extra batteries and/or extension cord and power strip for all the equipment.
  • Towel to fold over the external microphone to muffle ambient noise.
  • Pencils and writing pad to take notes and to write down follow-up questions.
  • Your list of questions and your pre-researched chronology of events.
  • Digital watch or clock (an interview should not last longer than two hours).

The interview

With an interview pre-plan mapped out in advance, you are ready for your interview. Make sure you pick a quiet and comfortable location. If at all possible, choose a location or schedule a time when you are alone with the person you are going to interview. Explain the equipment that you brought with you as tools to help accurately capture the interview.

Begin with simple questions and small talk to make the person comfortable and to establish a rapport. Your first question, after you've settled in, should be one that elicits a long response. From this point on you should:

  • Ask one question at a time. Do not ask compound questions that require more than two separate answers or thought processes.
  • Allow silence to work for you. Wait for an expanded explanation.
  • Be a good listener, using body language such as looking at the interviewee, nodding, and smiling to encourage and give the message, "I am interested."
  • When necessary, use verbal encouragements such as "This is fascinating information!" or "How interesting!"
  • Ask for specific examples if the interviewee makes a general statement and you need to know more. Or you might say, "I'm not sure that I understand. Could you explain that in more detail?"
  • Never be afraid to admit that you do not know something or to ask for clarification.
  • Ask for definitions and explanations of words that the interviewee uses and that have critical meaning for the interview. For example, ask a wildland firefighter how they define a "hand line." How was it used? What was its purpose?
  • Rephrase and re-ask an important question several times, if you must, to get the full amount of information from the interviewee.
  • Keep the interview no longer than one or two hours. Interviewed subjects are complimented when you have to return a couple of times for several short interviews. This builds trust and confidence in your interviewee and shows your continued interest in them. The time spent between interviews allows you to review your notes and develop some follow-up questions.
  • If an interviewee suggests other resources, such as articles or books for you to get more information on your topic, do the follow-up and develop some questions before you return for the next interview to show that you've been paying attention.

In Part 5 of this series, we'll discuss how to ask open-ended questions for oral history interviews.

Rodney Slaughter, MSOD, NFHC President
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