You too can be a historian — interview your elders
I usually celebrate Women’s History Month by sharing stories of women from the past who have inspired me. This year, I want to encourage readers to discover the histories of women in their own lives — by interviewing them and recording their memories.
It’s been my pleasure to record many interviews with Wisconsin men and women over the years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that everybody has a story to tell, whether they’ve lived an active public life or focused on family and home.
Women, more than men, seem to downplay the significance of their lives. They ask in amazement, “You want to interview me?” Usually, their reluctance can be overcome with a little cajoling by loved ones. Telling them in advance the kinds of questions you will ask and urging them to think about special events or memories they’d like to share peak their interest.
In a comfortable setting, with the guidance of a sympathetic interviewer, people open up. They share wonderful, thoughtful stories about their childhoods, their hopes, the troubles they’ve seen and the lessons they’ve learned. If you interview your parents or grandparents, you may be surprised by the intimacies they share, sometimes for the first time.
Anyone can do oral history. Guidelines, including equipment recommendations and sample questions and legal releases, can be found at oralhistory.org and storycorps.org. Here are some practical suggestions based on my own experience.
Preparation is critical. Develop a list of questions in some logical order. Questions about family background, education and influences during youth are relevant to almost anyone. If being an immigrant, military veteran, nurse or activist are central to your subject’s life story, ask questions specific to those experiences.
Try to craft questions that require more than “yes” or “no” answers. For instance, instead of “Did you have a happy childhood?” ask “What do you remember most about your childhood?”
Use the questions you’ve prepared to guide you during the interview but don’t keep your eyes glued to them. A good interviewer must be attentive and listen carefully to responses. That way you’re able to ask interesting follow-up questions. Follow-ups beginning with “Why?” or “How?” can elicit more details.
Start with basic questions to put your subject at ease, like “When and where were you born?” or “What are/were your parents’ names? How did they get together?” Ask in advance if they have photos or mementos they’d like to share during the interview. These materials can prompt memories you might not have known to ask about.
Always be sensitive. Sometimes your questions can re-awaken sad or painful memories. Be patient and give the person time to think. Silent moments are OK. If necessary, take a break.
Conduct the interview in a place that is comfortable for the interviewee. To ensure sound quality, stay away from noisy street traffic and other distractions. Always test your equipment before beginning. Record an introduction with the date, location and names of interviewer and interviewee. Make sure to label the digital file or media on which you record and make a duplicate.
Above all, have fun! The resulting interview is something that can be shared with family members or posted online for viewing by a wider audience. You also can donate it to a historical society where it will become part of the larger mosaic of community history.