You too can be a his­to­rian — in­ter­view your el­ders

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - JAMAKAYA

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.

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