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Preplanning your oral history interview

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This is Part 3 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.

There is a pretty good chance at this point that you already know a person that you would like to interview. If not, look around your organization and you will probably find an active member of your department in their sixties or seventies, or even eighties. These people have the institutional knowledge of your department that would be of great historical benefit.

Look also around your community. There may be survivors of past disasters or victims of emergencies that would like to tell their story, too. Surviving family members of department personnel who have recently passed away may also be interesting interview subjects. There is really no end to the interview possibilities in your own community.

But conducting the interview is only a part of the task before you. To be successful you need to develop a pre-plan by doing a little research on the person you are about to interview. This research includes collecting background information about the person. Internet searches and recommendations and information from other people who know the person will be very helpful.

Your background research should also include major events that occurred during the career and in the life of the person you are about to interview. Archived stories of major events can easily be collected from the local newspaper or your local historical society. A chronology of events will help narrow your research ideas and will provide a prompt for follow-up questions.

An example question might be, "What was your role in response to the Grand Hotel Fire on Main Street in November 1979?" Other questions could revolve around technological advances introduced to the department such as, "What was the initial response of the firefighters when brass couplings and nozzles were replaced with aluminum alloys?" Prepare a chronology of historical events and technological advances in the fire service for your interview.

In your initial research you may find archived newspaper, magazine articles, and photographs that you can copy. You can use this archive material to help successfully jump start your interview. Ask your interviewee if they can identify any of the people or describe the event in a picture or article. The interviewee may have additional pictures that they will let you borrow and copy. Be sure to scan, catalog and return them promptly afterwards.

In Part 4 of this series, we'll discuss oral history tools of the trade and interview questions.

Put your money where your mouth is
Ethical considerations for oral history interviews

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  • The National Fire Heritage Center
  • Address: 17701 Creamery Road  Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727
  • Phone: (210) 380-8364
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.