History Preserved

Read a transcribed interview of Charles Kenneth Weedman (Dec. 6, 1912 – Aug. 27, 1990) and Elna Alice Lumpkin Weedman (Feb. 27, 1913 – June 12, 2001). Interviewed by Kenneth Russell Weedman in 1982 at their home in Little Rock, Arkansas. K

Become an Oral Historian

By Kenny Weedman

Would you like to have an audio or video recording of the ancestor you are now researching or just revisit your great grandmother telling you a family story? That might not be possible, as they may have passed away before any one did an interview by recording or just writing down their words as they spoke. But it’s not too late for you to start your own family’s oral history recording library. You can help ensure for later generations what was not possible for you to use in your research.

The only equipment you need to start is pen, paper and a recording device. You are the interviewer so you need only locate a willing interviewee to begin to preserve knowledge of your family’s history. I had spoken with my parents and aunts while taking notes and sent out one page follow up questionnaires which did not come up to my expectations. And my ability to take the kind of notes needed for research while interviewing people fell somewhat short of what I thought was a good secretary’s ability. So in 1988 I started interviewing close relatives using a small cassette tape recorder with little knowledge of how to go about the task at hand. Now I am somewhat wiser through experience and reading articles on oral history interviewing.

The first step is knowledge of how to operate your equipment and this means reading the booklet on usage and practicing with the machine. I would like to recommend that you let the tape run continually while you do the interview or get a voice activated recorder. The reasoning being there are silent spots in conversation and clicking the machine on and off becomes annoying and you may not record the first few words because you failed to turn it on as the interviewee began to speak. A voice-activated recorder might not get all of the first word but it will come on when some one speaks or if the machine runs constantly you have every voice in real time. Have batteries in staled in the recorded and bring the adaptor for use in a wall plug along with extra batteries. And let’s not forget two or three blank cassette tapes and a head cleaner. If you have a good microphone to attach to the recorder it will pick up the sound better than the internal microphone. Now place the microphone or recorder close to the interviewee in order to hear them more clearly. Remember you do not know the answers to your questions but you do have an inkling of what you will ask.

Now you will need to find a willing relative to interview. For your first session I would suggest a person that you have a close relationship with and some common experiences. Contact your prospective interviewee to explain that you are working on family oral history project and would very much like to invite them to be part of the project. Be sure to include the fact that you only need an hour of their time. Remember if they are gracious enough to talk with you it did not mean they agree to let you grill them all day. And besides people’s attention span only last so long and you do not want to wear out your welcome. If they agree to your invitation then set up a time and place to conduct the interview and thank them. In general it will be best to conduct the interview session with only one person present but many times this will not be the case. The spouse or other relations may be present during the session and can inject their own response to your questions. Many times they can be helpful but then they can also be a determent so you must remember that you are the guest and make the best of it.

Now prepare an interview sheet for that specific person with the following information: Date and place of the interview, full name and nick name, date and place of birth, current address, parents, siblings, grandparents and any other factual items you deem needed. One sheet of paper printed front and back with information is all you need anything more will be a distraction. Now you must define your research goal for this interview. It can have a general goal like "Aunt Eccentric Life" with two or three more specific questions such as her general appearance, Christmas visit and travel exploits. Now you can word questions like this "Did Aunt Eccentric dye her hair?" and receive "yes or no" for answers only. Are you can have more general question like "What did you think of Aunt Eccentric’s appearance?" and receive a much more interesting response about her hair, make up, clothing shoes and entrance into a room. You need to keep in mind that an interview will have a life of it own and the interviewee’s stream of consciousness might jump from the Aunt to their trip to Paris, France. Remember they may not want to talk about your subject any more so go with the flow and you can learn something new. You will improve with time at compiling a list of subjects and questions.

Before you leave home check the recorder "saying this is a test" and then re play it. Then enter "your name, interviewer and the name of the interviewee and the date" and write the same information on the outside label of the tape. When you arrive at your dictation thank them for the interview and reiterate why you are doing an oral history tape. Make sure they understand that the information on the tape will be used to write a family history and you are not engaged in a secret conversation. You need to listen for extraneous noises like the television, dishwasher and ask to turn them off. I have actually had to ask that all those things be turned off before starting an interview. After creating as quite an environment as possible you’re ready to start the recording session.

Began by asking them to say their name and date of birth on the recording this establishes their voice record for anyone who might listen to the tape later. Start with an easy question and after you have feel you have established a good rapport then you might brooch a stiffer subject with the respondent. Follow up on their answer to your questions before you move to a new subject. Give them your full attention with eye contact and the appropriate body language. Remember you might touch a nerve with the interviewee when they are talking about a love one that has passed away and you can turn the recorder off while they gain control. The interviewee may not speak politically correct, use polite language or they could be overly modest in any case it is their story not yours so just be a good listener. Always be kind to your respondent. End the interview as you started on a happy note with an easy question.

You need a form that grants permission for the use of your interview for publication. There are a number of books that have release form examples. All the people that speak on the tape need to sign the release form so when it is archived future listeners can make use of the information. Be sure to thank them for the privilege of taping an interview. And inform them that you will follow up with a written transcript so they can correct any transcription errors.

You should make any notes that will help with the transcription of the interview as soon as possible. Notes on the interviewee such as a description not only of them but of their environment can also be of value to a later listener.

Be sure to catalogue your tapes with the names and dates for all the speakers on the tape. Many people make a copy that is stored in a separate location in case of a natural disaster destroying the original. Save your families history by making some oral history recordings.