Open-ended questions for oral history interviews

This is Part 5 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.

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The types of questions you ask are critical to the success of your interview. Open-ended questions are questions that encourage people to talk about what is important to them. They help to establish rapport, help you gather additional information, and increase your understanding. An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” response.

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Oral history tools of the trade and interview questions

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.

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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.

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Preplanning your oral history interview

 

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.

Read Part 1| Read Part 2

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.

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Ethical considerations for oral history interviews

This is Part 2 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. Read Part 1

Interview styles

If there is a contemporary interview style that you could easily identify with and effectively adopt, it might be that of a mental health care professional. A psychologist, or psychiatrist, will first establish a safe environment for the interviewee and provide an appropriate atmosphere for a person to tell their story. The person being interviewed is thoughtfully allowed to tell the story with carefully crafted follow-up questions asked by an attentive interviewer.

As an interviewer, you should never exploit the person you are interviewing or their story. An interview example that many of us see on television is the technique used by investigative reporters. But this type of interview technique is not the best example of how to conduct a historical oral interview! Investigative reporters are all about their story — regardless of who gets hurt in the process of getting to the “truth.”

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Conducting oral history interviews

The American fire service is fascinating in terms of the breadth of its history, the richness of its traditions, and the deeply embedded values and beliefs of those that serve this profession. The National Fire Heritage Center (NFHC) exists precisely to document and hold in trust the history and culture of the American Fire Service for future generations to study, explore and enjoy.

Much of our historical information is carried from one generation of firefighters to the next by our oral histories. The NFHC’s Board of Directors realizes that we must not wait to begin gathering these life stories. We must begin in earnest, to collect our oral traditions, one individual firefighter and fire service leader at a time. Collectively, we will capture important features about our firefighting culture that are seldom recorded or preserved. This type of information will expand our knowledge of the profession and be of value to future generations of fire service professionals and historians.

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