The Interview – Part 1

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A primary technique in the genealogical research process is the interview. As you begin to gather materials you will develop ideas for interviews you might want to conduct. But before you pull out the tape recorder and sit at a table with that elderly relative, consider the planning you need to conduct beforehand so that you end up with the quality you desire.


Decide on the purpose for the interview

You need to understand what you are trying to accomplish by interviewing this person. What are the key areas of interest? What is important for this interview? Many times during the course of an interview it will take a turn that is different from the original intention. Are you flexible enough to go with that? Is there a limit to the number of people you can interview in a reasonable amount of time? How will you decide who is in and who is out?

Who owns the interview materials?

Now is the time to put some forethought into what you will do with the interviews once you finish them. Will you store them at a library or museum? Or give them back to the family? Will you keep them in your own repository?

Sometimes in the course of an interview, the interviewee has other materials they may want to give to you. Photographs or other documents, even family keepsakes. Will the client expect you to manage these as well, or will you just copy or photograph them and return them?

Probably the primary driver in these decisions is figuring out who will have ongoing responsibility for the preservation of and access to the interviews. Discuss this with your client early in the planning process. The legal and copyright issues regarding the management of materials is beyond the scope of this blog. We recommend you consult the Oral History Association if you need further information. One caveat – while the Internet is a great place to publish information, you should never consider it to be a permanent storage repository.

Agree to a timeframe for completing interviews

Within the scope of your client’s budget you will need to establish a timeframe for completing interviews. Be sure your client understands the time involved in selecting interviewees, research, scheduling and conducting the interviews and processing the interviews. You may want to break out each of these tasks into blocks of time. Again, prepare to be flexible as interviews may not go the way you think they will. The main thing is to be sure your client knows what to expect.

Establish record-keeping procedures

Just a few standard forms to keep will greatly aid in keeping records for this process. We advise you to seek legal counsel on the development of any forms. The following are some of the typical forms used by genealogists.

  • Legal release form – this does not have to be complex, but you will want a permission form
  • A simple biography form for each interviewee is often helpful. Fill this out at the beginning of the interview, or on a preliminary phone call. Name and contact info is important, but also a section describing how this interviewee is related to the goals of your client’s project.
  • Immediately after conducting the interview, complete an interview summary form. This will provide names, dates, and some statements about the interview contents.
  • A memorabilia form you will use to log any photographs or memorabilia you receive during the interview.

These basic forms are a good start for your record keeping purposes.

Legal/Ethical Matters

We are not lawyers and recommend you do consult a lawyer on all legal matters. We do, however, want to point out potential issues you may face.

Legal Issues

As already mentioned, the first and perhaps most important issue to address is who will own the materials created in this interview process. An oral history interview is a copyrightable document from the moment the interview ends. It is therefore a wise decision to consult your lawyer for how to handle this material.

If you are videotaping the interview, be sure in your release form to get permission to display the interviewee’s name and image visually, either online or in publication.

What if you are processing the interview and some of the material could be considered defamatory (think slander or libel). Again, be sure to cover this with a lawyer, but in general only the living can be libeled. Should you run across this issue, it is recommended you find out the best legal way to handle this, and also inform the interviewee when this occurs.

Ethical Standards

It is important to document the purpose of the interviews. In the future when other researchers are looking to this material for facts, they will want to understand whether or not the information was skewed by the interviewees perspective. Or the interviewer for that matter. For example, let’s say as part of your research you are trying to determine if Aunt Sally had a child out of wedlock. Perhaps her sister Aunt Susie knows the answer, but Aunt Susie doesn’t want to talk about it. Or maybe Aunt Susie talked about it, but the client who is paying for the research doesn’t want that fact published. What do you do? Future researchers will want to know if that information was simply not known, or if it was left out on purpose. How do you handle this from an ethics perspective? It is important for future users of this material to understand the context behind the interview.

Other ethical considerations. Perhaps you intended to video the interview, but the interviewee does not want to appear on camera. You should respect their right to to refuse to participate in this manner.

Interviewees have a right to review transcript materials before they are published. You can put something about this in your release form as well.

This is by no means a full discourse of legal and ethical issues, but we have tried to highlight some of the more common ones that may arise.

The second part of this series will cover the equipment you need to conduct your interview.

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