The Beginner’s Guide: Tape-recording Memories


You need only three things: an interviewer, an interviewee, and a tape recorder.

The Beginner’s Guide:

Oral history is a person’s tape-recorded memories as he or she responds to the questions of an interviewer. This recorded history and typed transcripts made from it are valuable historical documents, like diaries, letters, and memoirs.

Many universities, libraries, historical societies, and families have oral history projects. The Church’s program, for example, already includes about 900 interviews with 400 different people—1,800 hours of tape in all and thousands of pages of transcripts.

Does it matter what kind of recorder or tape I use? Any recorder with a strong microphone pickup and good sound reproduction can be used. Many interviewers prefer reel-to-reel recorders. Good quality cassette units can be used, but cassette tapes must be watched very carefully during an interview. If the tape runs out, gets stuck, or tangles in the machine, priceless parts of the interview can be lost. Your recorder should be operated on electric current, not on batteries, which can gradually run down, ruining many minutes of tape before the recorder stops. Good quality tapes or cassettes should be used for such an important project. (Cassettes longer than thirty minutes on each side tend to be thinner and may cause problems later.)

Should two or three people be interviewed at the same time? No. This complicates the interview and can weaken its value. The best interview situation is one to one. Children and youth, as well as adults, can be interviewed profitably.

How do I prepare for an interview? First you need to do some background research so you can find out what sort of questions to ask. You’ll want to look at any life sketches, scrapbooks, and diaries of your interviewee; you’ll also want to talk to some of his or her friends.

Second, practice with your recorder until you are thoroughly familiar with it and can sense when it does not sound or function properly. You may even want to do a practice interview with your spouse, or with a relative or roommate, just to get used to asking questions that start the other person talking.

Do I use a question sheet during an interview? Definitely yes. Have a list of a few broad questions. Under each one write some specific items you want to discuss. This list helps give you confidence during the interview and keeps things moving in the right direction.

But don’t give the interviewee the list ahead of time: nothing ruins an interview like prepared answers or, even worse, written statements that are read onto the tape!

What topics do you suggest I cover when interviewing an older relative? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Memories of family members who are dead—their personalities, family stories about them, and other things that old photographs and family group sheets just don’t show.

2. The interviewee’s early years—places he or she lived, family circumstances, preschool memories, childhood fads, games, holidays, medical methods, work experiences, teenage social life, religious activity, and hobbies.

3. Adult years—military service; school or other training; first jobs; dating, courtship, and marriage; characteristics of each child; houses lived in; daily routine of family life; religious attitudes and participation; hobbies and sports; civic activities; career promotions and changes; and impact of retirement.

4. World events—the Depression, the world wars, epidemics, fashions, changes brought about by technology, and politics.

5. Genealogical matters—names, dates, places, and relationships.

6. Testimony of the gospel and faith-promoting experiences.

What do you mean by broad questions? Because you don’t want short answers, you should ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with just a word or two.

These are closed questions that don’t get the interviewee talking: What was your father’s name? What company did you work for? How many children did you have? Did you attend Church regularly? How much money did you receive for the family farm?

These are open-ended questions that require a long answer: What do you remember about your father? Why did you become a truck driver? What was your typical housewife day like back then? What role did the Church play during your teenage years? How did the Depression affect your family?

What about positioning the recorder? Won’t it scare the interviewee? Who holds the microphone? Keep the recorder where the interviewee won’t constantly be aware of it, but have it where you can easily see if it is working right and when the tape needs changing. Rearrange the furniture if you need to in order to have a good recording situation. Eliminate outside noises by turning off the television, closing doors and windows, and sitting away from heaters, air conditioners, and noisy clocks. It will improve recording quality and increase rapport if you sit at a comfortable conversation distance—four to six feet apart.

As for the microphone, no one should hold it. You should set it on pillows on an end table, tape it to the back of a kitchen chair, or do something else to keep it as near to lip level as possible, Many cassette recorders have built-in microphones that pick up normal conversational tones, but they also pick up the hum of the machine.

Whatever you do, though, don’t have the microphone right in front of the interviewee’s face. He should feel like he is talking to you, not to a machine.

What typical mistakes do new interviewers make? When the interviewee seems to be finished with an answer, interviewers are often too eager to jump in with the next question. Avoiding the urge to interrupt is no easy task! An interviewee, for example, may begin: “Well, I was born in a small town in Ohio and when I was young we moved to Florida.” Such a beginning spawns a host of “who, what, where, when, why” questions that you would like to ask at this point. However, even one seemingly innocent question like “What town in Ohio?” tells the interviewee that his role is to answer closed questions as if he were filling out a questionnaire.

Instead of asking such questions right when they occur to you, jot down reminders on your question pad:

—born small town Ohio, where?

—parents, why in Ohio?

—what recall of town?

—why leave? why Florida? when?

When the interviewee pauses and seems to be through, wait deliberately and do not rush in with the next question. Allow enough time for the interviewee to think of other things. Maybe he’ll remember something during that pause—something priceless that no amount of questioning could uncover. The fill-in questions can wait until later. Chances are he’ll answer them in the course of the conversation.

Any other interviewing tips? Some other ideas that can be helpful are:

1. Avoid appearing too informed. Correcting an interviewee can be offensive. But don’t be afraid to tactfully ask for clarification of what seem to be contradictory statements.

2. Tape doesn’t cost all that much: don’t be worried if the interviewee meanders or repeats himself.

3. If the interviewee wants to get up and show you pictures or wants to read something onto the tape, explain that it would be better to do this at the end of the interview.

4. Save the very sensitive questions until late in the interview, by which time the interviewee will be ready to trust you with such information.

5. The quality of your interview depends on your ability to dig, to get the full story, to obtain sequences and encourage details. If necessary, use many different angles to get at elusive information.

6. Interviews should last between one and two hours. Longer sessions are too tiring for both of you.

What happens when the interview is over? Label the tape box by listing the names, place, and date of the interview. For permanent storage the recording should be on good quality tape, preferably 1.5 millimeters wide. It should be stored in its box, on edge, at room temperature and away from excessive heat, dampness, or magnetic fields. It is a good idea to play tapes every year.

When you transcribe an interview, proofread it while listening again to the tape. Transcripts should be word-for-word, exactly as they happened, then ought to receive minor editing for punctuation and paragraphs. The interviewee should receive a fairly neat copy for his or her corrections and approval. Then you can type a final copy. This oral history, in tape or transcript form, can then, with the permission of the interviewee, be given out to the family as part of their records. Not only will you have the information, but you will also have the personality of a loved family member long after he or she is gone.

[illustrations] Illustration by Adrian Pulfer

[illustrations] Family memories; Childhood; Personal milestones; World events; Genealogy; Inspiring stories

Gary L. Shumway, associate professor of history at California State University, Fullerton, is a member of the bishopric in the Anaheim Seventh Ward, Anaheim California Stake.

William G. Hartley, research historian and oral history director in the Church Historical Department, serves as executive secretary in the Salt Lake Granger North Stake.