Local History – Interviewing Techniques

Through the Recollections of Others

We have four sources of information on local history available to us: people, pictures, artifacts, and documents. This article covers the first of these resources: people as a source for interpreting or confirming oral history, and focuses on techniques for interviewing them.

Objective: To increase our knowledge or confirm specific points by conducting a quality interview and developing an essay on some aspect of local history.

The following scenario is about an imaginary interview with a local citizen, Timothy Murphy. I play the interviewer, but you can use these techniques with people in the community to create your own local history. My hope is that a lot of people — especially younger people — will interview seniors and relatives and share what they learn with the rest of us.

A first interview to explore possible subject areas
I generally use only a pen and paper for a first interview. I introduce myself and emphasize that the interview can be quick and easy, and might be very interesting to others. I hope this introduction will calm any nervousness, motivate the person I’m interviwing to agree to a second interview, and identify a topic so that the next interview will be focused and detailed.

I try to get mechanical aspects (spelling of names, preferred nicknames, contact information, and year of birth) out of the way first. I write these details down, and then try to make only occasional notes during the rest of this interview.

Interviewing Timothy Murphy, I ask for a brief overview of his life. It turned out to be varied: he was born in Pennsylvania, was illiterate and a troublemaker, and joined a local militia in 1775 just before a sheriff caught up with him. In his regiment, Timothy was deemed a marksman (able to hit a 7-inch target at 750 feet) and was sent to Boston with his regiment. The regiment, led by Daniel Morgan, fought at Québec and Saratoga (he played a critical role with his musket, bringing down British General Fraser). Sent to defend the Schoharie Valley, Timothy went AWOL to marry a local girl. He fought against Joseph Brant’s Indians, was a hero at the battle of Middle Fort, and subsequently fought in the battles of Long Island, Trenton, Princeton, and Yorktown. He settled in Fulton and later the Charlotte Valley, where he was a successful farmer, businessman, and politician from 1783 until his death in 1818.

This remarkable history is true, but it also is an excellent example of how a person’s life may have many different facets.

It is best to keep an interview specific and focused:

“I see all sorts of topics for our interview — your time with Daniel Morgan, the battle of Middle Fort, shooting Gen. Fraser at Saratoga, and how a Pennsylvania roustabout married the daughter of a loyalist farmer. What one topic would you choose to talk about in this interview?”

Timothy said that he would like to talk about his relationship with Peggy, although there were a couple of other topics that he also would like to share. I asked

“what three points would you like to make about your life and marriage?”

From what he said, I was able to summarize the topic for our next interview:

“Timothy, at the next interview, we’ll discuss your life with Peggy: (1) your meeting her during your frequent scouting trips around the loyalist Feeck (Peggy’s home) farm; (2) your eloping with Peggy to Duanesburg and threatening to take her to Pennsylvania if her Tory father remained hostile; and (3) Peggy’s activities at the Middle Fort molding bullets, loading muskets, and swearing to take up a spear when the ammunition ran out. I’d also like to get a picture of your marriage license if you could dig it out for me — I’ll bring the camera. And I hope you’ll prepare a short biography to use at the end of the article.”

After a first interview, I check my notes to make sure I have the important points, adding any ideas I might have missed. I also go online and search for topics that might come up in a second interview, and I print an extra copy of any documents that I would like to share. I also make an outline of the topics to be discussed, and then simplify it. For Timothy, I made the list extremely simple: (1) meeting Peggy; (2) marrying Peggy; and (3) Middle Fort.

A second interview to develop the article
Before the second interview, I checked my kit, including a digital camera and extra batteries, tape measure, paper, and an iPod for recording the interview (the iPod is an easy way to take notes of the interview and is capable of converting the file to an MP3 format for the Internet).

Timothy got right down to business at the kitchen table, and I introduced him to the iPod and the benefits of its use. Timothy had no problem having the iPod on the table and it quickly became just part of the background.

I turned on the recorder, gave him the outline while reinforcing the three points that we were to cover, and a map of the area around Peggy’s father’s farm. Timothy produced the marriage certificate (I photographed it) and gave me a summary of his life for use at the bottom of the article. I took a couple of pictures to use in his bio.

With the mechanics out of the way, Timothy (who was a natural storyteller when he was given a structure) started to discuss the first point on our list: how he met and courted Peggy on his travels through northern Schoharie County. I wasn’t quite able to follow him at one point, and asked him to clarify. Generally, however, Timothy did a wonderful job describing his experiences and used a minimum of “I means” and “ums.” I found it best to simply let him talk and not interrupt him.

The second and third points of our outline were handled the same way. It was amazing that Timothy (who is not a “word person”) could do such a wonderful job of talking about this aspect of his life.

As we ended this interview, I promised him I’d be in touch within a week with a version of the article similar to what would be used in the Newsletter.

Organizing the article
If I have not recorded the interview, I transcribe my notes as completely and quickly as possible. If I had recorded the interview, I would transcribe the tape. But in either event, I tried to do this as quickly as possible after the interview and while the memory of what was said is still clear in my mind.

I run the spell-check utility and then glance through the typed version to make sure I have not missed any important points. This file now represents the most complete recollection of my interview, so I save it, make a duplicate, and and place the original in a separate secure location. I always use a copy of the file for editing.

First pass: read the file with no preconceptions.
I try to read the transcribed text as a casual reader with no knowledge of the topic or the source. I don’t do any editing on this first pass, and I continually remind myself that the article is the author’s work, not mine.

Second pass: fix only what may be broken.
My first question is, “does it flow well?”

If the answer is “yes,” I do only the absolute minimum of editing.

However, if the flow of ideas is choppy and disconnected, I will move some ideas around, delete incorrect information, or add transitions. Other common problems could involve word choice, grammar, or the lack of a clearly defined theme. Recommended solutions to these common problems follow:

If the flow of ideas is choppy:

  •  I put a carriage return at the end of every sentence, to make each sentence a separate paragraph. I then rearrange these paragraphs to the most logical flow.
  • I read through this new text flow, to locate any gaps between the sentences. I create a new sentence or a question for the author to fill these gaps, underlining the text to indicate that this is my wording.
  • I move sentences that are off-topic or erroneous to the end of the file so that I can still access them but don’t have to work them into the presentation.
  • I then reread the sentences and recombine them into paragraphs, with each paragraph focussing on a single specific aspect of the interview.

Sometimes words are poorly chosen and a better idea or phrase is available. I usually can change a word or a phrase to solve the problem, and the editing is so minor that it is not noticeable. I don’t highlight these minor edits, but I always show the author the revised version for approval. Always give your source a chance for final review.

If incorrect grammar is noticeable, try to eliminate grammatical errors.

When there is no clearly defined theme, create a topic sentence at the start of the article that includes the items in the outline you developed for the second interview. This topic sentence will help organize the details of your article.

Third pass: Is the quality of this article now acceptable?
If the article meets your standards, set up an appointment with the author for final approval.

Gerry Stoner

Gerry Stoner

This article is one of several to help you document local history. Other articles will help you convert your interviews, documents, pictures, and artifacts into documentation of your local history that can be shared with your community.