by Mathieu Aubin and Deanna Fong
in consultation with COHDS, Montreal Life Stories, and Piyusha Chatterjee
Last revision: March 29, 2021 (Aubin and Fong)
The oral history axis of the SpokenWeb Project will explore ways to activate the audio collections held within the SpokenWeb network by drawing on the memories and life experiences of key literary agents such as authors, series organizers, audience members, sound technicians, and publishers. These personal narratives, which emerge in co-creation with an interviewer or interviewers, offer insight into the poetics of performance, local, regional, national, and transnational literary scenes and publics, and the political underpinnings of literature and its events. To trace some of these rhizomatic connections between people, places, and events, the project will employ oral history methodology in conversation with literary history and theory. These interviews will be open-ended and encourage interviewees to speak about whatever aspects of their life experience they feel are relevant. The collection will offer a rich historicizing layer to the archival audio recordings, providing inroads into alternate histories and the experiences of marginalized, silenced, and/or underrepresented subjects in the archive.
This document provides a general guideline for preparing, conducting, and preserving oral history interviews. It is a living document that evolves as the project changes, taking on new participants, collections, and research over time.
Scope of the Project
The project aims to provide historical context for the recordings held in our collections. As many of the archival recordings are event-based, we wish to foreground the importance of multiple, sometimes conflicting, facets of those events, knowing that a singular (or even multiple) perspective is insufficient to exhaust its meaning. Events can involve multiple or even singular participants–they can include, but are not limited to, poetry readings, interviews, conversations, lectures and meetings, and even solo recordings. Multiple participants act in these events and therefore are responsible for the interpretation of their meaning–in the present as much as in the past. Additionally, we can think of these events in aggregate, pulling together to assemble nodes of geographical and historical significance, thereby reflecting the cultural energies of small- and large-scale literary scenes.
Oral History interviews are valuable for the fact that they offer an opportunity to fill in gaps in the extant archival/historical record. One systemic omission across archival collections of the spoken word is that subjects who do not view themselves as public figures, based on their position vis-à-vis social forces, are less likely to appear on the record. Thus, a major impetus of this project is to create space for those voices that have been traditionally muted in the archive such as: BIPOC writers, organizers, and community members; women, femme, and non-binary folks; LGBTQ2+ people; working class and poor people; people with disabilities; and subjects whose labour is less likely to be recognized in a public way, such as hosts, organizers, facilitators, technicians, audience members, students, etc.
The project envisages multiple types of interviews that position the interviewee in different relation to events and their documentary recordings. These can include, but are not limited to:
- Provenance interviews that gather contextualizing information about a collection, either at the moment of its acquisition or shortly afterward
- Informational interviews that gather information about a recording or collection of recordings and/or the events they record
- Performance interviews that ask a speaker to read alongside their archival voice and reflect upon the experience (i.e. the “ghost reading” series)
- Participant interviews that gather the general recollections of those who participated in an event, for example: speakers/performers, series organizers, recordists, audience members, etc.
- Life story interviews that ask a participant about various aspects of their lives, such as family of origin, career, community involvement, or other questions of literary and historical import
- Memory space (in situ) interviews that use a physical place as a prompt for memory retrieval, during which interviewees revisit locations significant to literary events
- Other types of interviews may be used as the interviewer or interviewees see fit, so long as they conform to the ethical and technical protocols outlined in this document.
Interviews can take place with single or multiple interviewees and/or interviewers; they can be one-time events or an ongoing series of conversations. Regardless of the composition and/or structure of the interview, the possible directions of the discussion will unfold organically as an interaction between interviewer, interviewee, recording, and space.
The SpokenWeb collections page (https://spokenweb.ca/research/collections/) provides a list of audio collections within the SpokenWeb network. These can be filtered by institution, and provide a variety of different information about the collection’s holdings. Searching the collections is a useful way to discover audio recordings around which an interview, or set of interviews, might turn; alternately, you may have already worked extensively with a collection through your involvement with processing, transcribing, or other primary work with the collections.
The first seeks to gather the general recollections of those who participated in an event. These interviews will involve a number of open-ended questions about hearing sounded poetry, participating in a literary community, writing and performing poetry, working as a formal or informal organizer of events, and other pertinent information about the everyday atmosphere of the era. The second is a more focused interview that uses archival audio as a prompt to elicit personal memories. In these interviews, audio from a specific event will be played for the interviewee, and questions, both specific and general will unfold from that encounter. The third kind of interview uses a physical place as a prompt for memory retrieval, as interviewees revisit locations significant to literary events. These interviews can be structured as walking tours, or site-specific visits. Other types of interviews and prompts may be used as the interviewer or interviewees see fit, so long as they conform to the ethical and technical protocols outlined in this document.
Methodology for the Project
The interview process that results in engaged conversations and its ethically conceived afterlife begins much before the start of the interview itself. It really begins with two questions on the part of the researcher: 1) Who is to be interviewed? and 2) Why are they being interviewed? The conception of the research project, however big or small, requires some initial research into the subject of the interview and the people who are to be interviewed. An oral history interview is generally not intended as a fact-finding mission, even though there is always the possibility of alternative truths emerging from a set of interviews, particularly if the research intends to give voice to the marginalized or oppressed sections of society. Instead, oral history focuses on understanding people’s experiences through their recollections of the past during the dialogic exercise of interviewing. It requires time and space for the interviewee participant to recall and reflect on past events. The interviewer participant works by providing prompts to those memories through questions and lending a listening ear. The dynamic of their relationship determines a lot of what is said during the interview.
“The first requirement, therefore, is that the researcher ‘accept’ the informant, and give priority to what she or he wishes to tell, rather than what the researcher wants to hear, saving any unanswered questions for later or for another interview.” (Portelli 39)
Since oral history interviews also desire an ethical engagement with the research subject and a more devolved power-dynamic, conversations about the findings of the interviews, their analyses and interpretations often take the interviewer and the interviewee into a more collaborative journey. Being interviewed on record, which is the underlying principle of oral history methodology, is also an act of going public. While interviewee participants have the choice to regulate the access of their interviews by choosing to be open to the public or staying anonymous, interviewing on record also presumes that what they say will reach a wider audience. Thus, dissemination becomes an important aspect of oral history interviews and any post-production work, whether for the archives or for other kinds of material.
Oral history interviews are constructed narratives. Both the interviewee participant and the interviewer participant are involved in creating the narrative on record. While the methodology centers the subjective self of the interviewee participant in the interview, it also asks for self-reflexivity on the part of the interviewer participants in their research and analysis. Reflecting on one’s own practice thus becomes a part of the research itself, making visible the decisions and the choices made by the researcher that shape any research.
Additionally, we recommend drawing upon interpretive frameworks that reflect the values and lived experiences of the interviewee. For instance, this can include engaging with feminist critical theory for interviews with women, queer theory and LGBTQ2+ historiography for interviews with queer people, Indigenous theory for interviews with First Nations, Inuit and Métis interviewees. Interviewers may consult with interviewees, supervisors, or other team members to recommend appropriate texts.
Oral History Ethics
Consent: Consent is the foundational core of the relationships that we form with our research participants. Much like consent in other situations in which ethical considerations come into play, we suggest that consent in the context of Oral History interviews follow the “F.R.I.E.S” model outlined by Planned Parenthood: Consent ought to be Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. Freely given means that the interviewee is not under any pressure to participate in or continue the interview, and that they may withdraw their participation at any time without facing negative consequences. Reversible means that interviewees may change or withdraw their interviews from an archive (or other records) at any time. Informed means that the interviewee understands the scope of the project, the possible audiences for their interview, and any risks that may be involved in making their interview public. Enthusiastic means that the interviewee wants to participate in the interview by their own volition, and expresses support for the research being conducted. Specific means that consent is an ongoing process and that new contexts for interviewing and dissemination must be approved by the interviewee; we must never assume that permission given in one context extends to another.
These principles guide the process of obtaining ethics approval from a Research Ethics Board [REB], but in practice often extend above and beyond what is outlined in that document. It is impossible to foresee every situation that will require consent and ethical consideration, and so these should be handled on a case by case basis, and the ethics protocol should be treated as a living document.
Sharing Authority: One of the basic tenets of oral history methodology is the principle of sharing authority over the interview and any post-production material that may be generated as part of the project. Sharing authority indicates a collaborative process of interviewing, analyses and interpretation, and dissemination.
In 1990, Michael Frisch, an American oral historian, offered the concept of a “shared authority” over an oral history interview because the interview is a conversation between two people who engage with each other over a shared interest. Oral historians, particularly in Canada, have since argued for a more democratic research process where the engagement with the interviewee participant continues after the interview in order to achieve shared research goals. It involves collaborative practices that do not treat interviewees as mere research subjects but as partners in research where we work and learn with them.
While evenly distributing authority is always the goal, we acknowledge that we do not exist outside the dominant social structure, and that imbalances of power will always exist between subjects, especially interviewers and interviewees (Freund 2014; Greenspan 2006; Sitzia 2003). Given this fact, oral historians must strive for equity by ceding authority where possible to those with less power. This can involve bringing in other members of a community to guide interpretation, collaborating with interviewees on the editing and dissemination of the interview, or consulting with those named in interviews if the discussion is of a sensitive or personal nature.
Stages of the Project
The work for conducting an oral history interview begins much before the actual interview takes place and the engagement continues after the interview ends, through to the post-production stage, and often the conversation continues during the dissemination process. These stages are not necessarily linear as work on post-production and dissemination will begin simultaneously and may sometimes generate new directions in interviewing. Researchers are welcome to work at and contribute to any stage of the project. Both interviewing and dissemination will remain on-going conversations. The initial focus of post-production will be on entering metadata into Swallow, reflections on the interviews in Teamwork, and archiving the interviews in Google Drive, with the eventual goal of transferring them to our Compute Canada server.
This stage focuses on preparing the interviewer for the interview process. The project has some overarching guidelines on approaching potential participants for possible interviews, initial conversations directed at explaining the project’s goals, and the conducting of the actual interviews. The framework has been put in place for multiple researchers to collaboratively gather historical information about the SpokenWeb collections, focusing on a multiplicity of perspectives and voices in the archive, which necessitate diverse approaches.
Since the goal of the oral literary history axis of the SpokenWeb Project is to activate the collection through different dialogic modes and spaces, interviews will be conducted in a number of different venues that serve the research questions of the interviewer, and ensure the comfort and convenience of the interviewee. While it is expected that specific literary events will serve as a starting point for conversation, there are no limits on the themes and topics that may be explored during these interviews. Since an oral history interview is only loosely structured by the researcher/interviewer with their questions, it is the interviewee’s willingness to talk about certain subjects, and reticence about others, that shapes the outcome of the interview. Researchers/interviewers are advised to remain open and flexible to unexpected turns and the introduction of new subjects during interviews.
As Oral Historian Alessandro Portelli reminds us, “the control of historical discourse remains firmly in the hands of the historian” (40) when they select who they will interview, and thus whose voices will appear on the record.
Interviewers may propose to interview anyone whose voice can be heard in the archive, or who participated in a past literary event whether their voice is recorded or not. We believe it is equally, if not more important, to seek out interviewees whose voices may be under-represented or even absent from the archival record, as one of the goals of our Oral Literary History axis is to diversify normative historical narratives. These interviewees include: Black and Indigenous people of colour; women, femme, and non-binary folks; members of the LGBTQ2+ community; working class people; differently abled people; and people whose labour enables events such as technicians, organizers, hosts, etc. Templates of letters for recruitment and an interview schedule will be available. Interviewers will need to modify and personalize the letters as required to send them out to their interviewees.
A centralized list of interviewees will be maintained by the Oral Literary History task force. It will record if a team member has approached a person for an interview, and whether that person: 1) has agreed to be interviewed; 2) has been interviewed; 3) has consented to further interviews; or 4) has declined an interview. All researchers are therefore expected to send a list of potential interviewees to the task force, and to cross-check the list of names for any overlaps they may have with other researchers. Please note that the same person may be interviewed more than once by different researchers if that person has consented to do so. It is recommended to consult with the task force before recruiting interviewees. The task force will provide guidance in the case that an interviewee: 1) has already been approached for an interview by another person; 2) has declined an interview with another researcher in the past; or 3) if there is any conflict of interest arising from the interview.
The following templates are available from the task force for recruiting participants:
- Letter explaining the goals of the project and the reason for seeking an interview. It will loosely explain the project’s theoretical and methodological approach and possible interview processes. This letter is intended as the first point of communication.
- Letter explaining the choices the interviewee has in being interviewed (whether video or audio). While the interviewer will likely point to recordings or events that they would like to discuss during the interview, the letter will also invite the interviewee to engage with the SpokenWeb Collections page (https://spokenweb.ca/research/collections/) to see if there are other meaningful events or recordings that they would like to talk about.
Research and training
Oral history interviews, which aim to connect at a deep level with the interviewee and generate a meaningful and reflexive conversation, are very demanding on the interviewer. Apart from being an attentive listener, one needs to simultaneously make the interviewee comfortable, watch their body language and expressions, negotiate their own feelings about, and reactions to, what is being said in the interview, and ask pertinent follow-up questions when necessary. Interviews may be conducted with one or more interviewer(s), who can either choose to share the role of interviewer equally or act as primary and secondary leads in the conversation with the interviewee. All people involved in conducting the interview (interviewers; video camera operators) are expected to undergo interview and equipment training and brief themselves on the interview protocols.
It is important to do some background research on the interviewee in order to address difficult topics during the interview and negotiate its course. Pre-interview conversations with the interviewee can be useful in preparing for the actual interview. In the case of authors and artists, we highly encourage completing background research on their works and their lives, which will help you find the questions that might resonate with them. For example, if you are interviewing a poet who read in a reading series, you might begin by reading the books that they read from in their performance; you might then consult biographical material in either print form or on the web; and, you might read some of their other works or view other performances or interviews to get a sense of their artistic practice and oeuvre. Background research can also take the form of familiarizing yourself with the historical milieu of the event you wish to discuss. For example, if a poet mentions the Vietnam War, or the Gay Liberation Movement in their preface to a poem you can seek out scholarly historical sources on those topics. Background research produces a richer, more engaged interview.
Another important pre-interview exercise is to work on an interview guide, which lists a combination of closed- and open-ended questions that are tailored to the interviewee. Even though it is highly recommended that the interviewer avoid enforcing a structure on the conversation and instead follows the lead of the interviewee in exploring subjects and memories from the collection, a general guideline comes in handy in gently guiding the interview forward when needed. Working on the interview guide before an interview also helps the interviewer orient themselves towards their interviewee, so that an informed conversation leads to a deeper engagement.
It is also important to be well-informed about: 1) the ethics of oral history interviewing; 2) the process of getting informed consent for the interviews; and 3) best practices in handling equipment and recording. More detail on each of these topics is given below. Before conducting interviews, team members (faculty and RAs alike) should complete an introductory SpokenWeb Oral History workshop that will discuss both interviewing and equipment-handling. Workshops will be held twice a year during the term of the project (one in late September and one in late January each year). Additionally, members of the Oral History task force will regularly offer voluntary workshops and seminars on focused topics in Oral History, and are available for consultation by request.
Ethics approval and consent forms
Once the prospective interviewer has completed their training, the next step is to consult the SpokenWeb Ethics Guidebook and Consent Form. This document provides an overview of the project’s approach to research ethics, and the specific steps involved in conducting ethical oral history interviews. During this phase of the interviewing process, interviewers will be asked to complete the The TCPS 2 Tutorial Course on Research Ethics (CORE).
For all interviews, consent forms must be signed by the interviewee and the interviewer before the start of the interview. Preferably, you will share and discuss the consent form after the first contact has been established and the person has agreed to do the interview, for example during the pre-interview meeting (detailed in “Interviewing” below). The interviewer should go over the form with the interviewee and explain the choices and the possible outcomes of those choices.
One principle of oral history interviewing is “mitigating harm” for research participants. Despite the popularity of digital technologies, people often do not fully comprehend the consequences of open-access in a digitized world. It is important to make interviewees aware of the various multimedia projects that may use their interviews, such as 1) publishing the full interview (and transcript) or parts of it through the SpokenWeb site; 2) publishing excerpts and quotations in various scholarly communications (e.g., an article or book chapter); 3) the preservation of the interview (and transcript) in the archives; 4) including parts or the whole of the interview in research-creation projects, such as gallery exhibits and installations, or digital artistic works. If they believe that the interviewee may be harmed or negatively affected by the interview going public or being preserved in the archive, the interviewer must advise the interviewee or desist from making use of such material.
The consent form allows multiple choices for archiving and accessing the interviews. Interviewees can choose between: 1) open public access; 2) limited access; and 3) anonymous. If they choose the first, the interview recording and transcripts will be made available through the SpokenWeb website. Although this project encourages open public access, interviewees will be able to choose from the other two options if they have privacy concerns. If interviewees choose limited access, their recordings and transcripts will be made available to researchers by request after they sign a confidentiality form. The anonymous interviews will be secured on the Compute Canada server and will be kept in a locked drawer at an appropriate location at the host institution. If no appropriate location is available, interviewers can securely transfer their files to be kept at the Amp Lab at Concordia. A copy of the recording will be shared with the interviewee after the interview. The anonymous interviews will be transcribed verbatim and shared with the interviewee for review. They will be able to remove all personal references and any other facets that they wish from the transcript. The final transcript will be made public through the website and enter the archives. The recordings of these interviews will be destroyed and only one copy will be left with the interviewee.
While it is strongly advised that the consent form be signed before the start of the interview, interviewees should be asked if they want to revise the consent form after the interview is done. They will also have the option to discontinue an interview at any point and withdraw permission for what has already been recorded. After the interview has been completed, they will be able to withdraw permission to the use of the interview. After that, interviews will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis but will not apply to prior access – i.e. if the interview has been used in a previous project, we cannot guarantee that it can be removed from that context (publication, etc.).
Two copies of the consent form should be signed by both the interviewer and the interviewee (digital signatures are permitted) and, in the case of hard copies, one copy will remain with the interviewee. The other copy must be filed along with the interview and the reflection piece, detailed below. These will be kept securely at your host institution or at Concordia’s Amp Lab.
Ultimately, the goal of ethical research, as defined by our project, is to maintain ongoing, informed consent through every step of the interview process and its afterlife (dissemination, preservation, etc.), and to give interviewees the maximum amount of choice in how their interviews are used.
Several decisions need to be made at the pre-interview stage, including the medium through which the interview will take place. The medium will determine the equipment that is best suited for the interview. The following details our recommended best practices for each medium of interviewing.
In-person interviews may be recorded via audio or video, based on the interviewee’s preference stated on the consent form. In case of video interviews, the protocol is to have a cameraperson handling the equipment. In the case of video interviews, an audio recorder must be used to record the sound for quality output. Lapel mics attached to the audio recorder may be used to record both the interviewee and the interviewer. Alternatively, just the audio recorder can also be used. If this is the case, we recommend taking a still photo of the interviewer and interviewee for the archives.
The project will have its own equipment that may be booked through the director or the coordinator of the project. Alternatively, equipment for interviews may be borrowed from COHDS, which requires borrowers to become affiliates of the center.
We recognize that many interviews in the COVID-19 era will take place remotely via teleconferencing software (Zoom is preferred) or over the phone. As with in-person interviews, teleconferenced interviews may use video or audio only. If a participant has indicated that they wish for an audio-only interview, you can suggest that they leave their camera off for the recorded duration of the interview, however, a still screen capture is also recommended.
Interviewers have access to a full licence on Zoom through the SpokenWeb project; you can email the Oral Literary History Task Force to obtain the link. If you have the ability to do so, we recommend that you connect to the internet through an ethernet cable to ensure the stability of the call’s connection. Equipment may be available to borrow from your host institution—check with your supervisor or the co-applicant at your institution. We also recommend that you record the interview on a separate audio recording device as a backup. If the interviewee has access to a recorder (such as Voice Memos on their iPhone), we suggest that they also record the interview on their end.
Phone into Zoom (preferred option): Zoom teleconferencing software offers the option to connect to a meeting by phone. Using this option requires that you provide the interviewee with a local call-in number as well as the meeting ID number and passcode. These details are made available when you use Zoom’s “invite” function. We recommend that you go over the telephone controls (i.e. mute) with the interviewee before commencing the interview. It is also advisable to record the interview with a backup device such as an iPhone or other digital recorder.
Phone to phone option: You can put your phone on speaker phone mode and record through an external device. However, this may result in mixed audio quality. Alternatively, if the interviewee has access to an external recording device, such as an iPhone, digital recorder, or laptop computer, as well as the technical proficiency to do so, you can request that they record the conversation on their end as well, and send you the resulting file.
The interview process begins with a pre-interview meeting for the interviewer and interviewee to get to know each other and discuss the goals of the interview. This meeting should be informal and low-stakes, with the aim of making the interviewee comfortable and connecting with them on a personal level. The process of sharing authority begins at this stage; the pre-interview is a time when the researcher should be honest and open to being vulnerable themselves, sharing their own stories and aspirations as the conversation unfolds. During this meeting, interviewees often bring up matters that will be useful in the interview itself. One way to approach this is to flag it for further discussion during the interview proper (i.e. “That’s so interesting. Remind me to ask you about that when we do our interview.”). The pre-interview meeting is also a time to explore shared topics of interest, and get a general sense of both participants’ comfort levels and boundaries, if any. The pre-interview meeting should conclude with a discussion of the consent form and its possible choices and outcomes.
In an effort to share authority, we advise that the interviewer give the interviewee the option to see some possible interview questions or topics in advance, as some people like to have the chance to prepare beforehand. This option also gives interviewees a chance to express topics that they would like to speak about, or to express any boundaries that they might have around certain interview topics. Explain to the interviewee that these are only a potential set of questions that might be addressed in the interview; it is possible and indeed likely that the interview will not follow them exactly as a script. We recommend that interviewers share potential interview questions at least a week in advance.
The following are some samples questions that could be used to begin an interview for this project:
1) What was it like to attend this event or set of events?
2) What was it like the first time you read poetry in front of an audience?
3) What stands out to you in your experience of listening to this audio recording so many years later?
4) What does it mean to you to have this recording enter an online collection?
5) Can you talk a bit about how this recording came into being? Were you aware that you were being recorded?
6) Who do you remember attending the event? Was there anyone you met for the first time?
7) What was happening in your life during the time of this event?
8) How would you describe the scene or culture around poetry readings at the time? How does that description compare to poetry readings now?
Since these are only conversation starters, questions need to be developed keeping in mind the person being interviewed. Oral history interviewing explores personal memories of public events and individual impressions of collective pasts. The interview can be steered towards the history and politics of local, regional, and national literary scenes and cultures. They could also focus on the author, their life in the city and their work. The questions will have to be tailored according to where the interviewer wants to go.
When the interview proper begins, there are many avenues into memory which will be shaped by the particular combination of interviewee, interviewer, place, and recording. Interviewees are invited to select and consult literary audio recordings from SpokenWeb’s collections or to engage with personal objects related to the events, communities, and scenes that they were a part of. When given enough time and space to reflect upon their memories with a willing listener by their side, oral history interviews often take a trajectory of their own. The course of the interview is determined through the dialogic process of conversation. The loose structure of the interview will allow the interviewee to lead the direction of the narrative but it is also possible that the interviewer will gently nudge them through their questions to go in a specific direction.
Before beginning the interview, have a little chat with your interviewee and give them time to become comfortable with the room and the recording technology. Test the levels on your recording device and if the interviewee is recording on their end, ask them to do the same. Communicate to the interviewee that you are ready to begin recording when they are ready.
Remember to ask your interviewee to state their name for the record at the beginning of the interview. Also, record your name, the date and place of interview.
If needed, please take breaks during the interview. Remembering the past can sometimes be emotionally difficult. It is possible that your interviewee will express anger or sadness. Give them time to process their emotions before continuing with the interview. Sometimes, as an interviewer you may feel certain emotions. Suggest a break if needed and step out. Moreover, the interviewee may want to speak off the record. If so, please stop the recorder and communicate with the interviewee that they are no longer being recorded. If you pause the recording technology, remember to turn it on before restarting the interview. When closing the interview, you may want to ask an open-ended question such as, “Is there anything else you’d like to discuss before we turn off the tape? Is there anything we haven’t covered, or that you’d like to return to?” At the end of the interview, please remember to thank your interviewee for their time and interest in the project. Stay and chat with them for a bit and make sure they are doing okay before saying goodbye. Remind them that they can get in touch if they have any questions, or think of something they’ve missed.
Before the interview
- Have you and any other participants completed the training in interviewing methods and equipment handling?
- Have you set a time with the interviewee for the interview? It is always a good idea to have at least half an hour for setup. Also, it is a good idea to let them know that the interview could be for as long as they want to talk. Having a couple of hours available is a good idea.
- Is the interview room booked (if needed)?
- Have you booked the equipment for the date and time of the interview?
- Do you have someone to help with the equipment (if needed)? Have you informed them about the time and place of the interview?
- Have you explained the consent forms and received a signed copy from the interviewee?
- Has the interviewee been briefed about the technology that will be used to record the interview, such as video or audio? Have you made provisions for a back-up recorder on your end, and the interviewee’s end (if possible)?
- Have you sent the interviewee a link to the SpokenWeb audio collections page, and/or asked them if they have any recordings that they would like to share?
- Ask your interviewee participant if they have any special needs ahead of the time? The Richler rooms are not wheelchair-accessible. You may need to book an alternative room for the interview.
Day of the interview
- Do you have a video camera (with battery + power adaptor), audio recorder (with batteries), lapel mics (with batteries)?
- Have you checked that all the equipment is in working order?
- Do you have SD cards for both the camera and the audio recorder? Are they formatted? If possible, keep a spare one around.
- Are the reusable batteries fully charged? (check the day before)
- Did you sync the lapel mic sender and receiver during set-up?
- Remember to run a test for the lapel mic and the audio recorder with the interviewee participant.
- Remember to switch on both the audio recorder and video camera. (Start the interview recording with a loud clap. It will help to sync the audio and video recordings in post-production)
(Teleconferenced or phone interview):
- Do you have enough space on your hard drive to record the interview?
- Are your microphone and headset working (check levels)?
- Do you have a stable internet connection?
- Do you have access to a quiet space where you will not be disturbed for the duration of the interview?
- Is your video camera working? Are the lighting conditions and angle optimal for your interviewee to see you?
- Is your backup recorder working? Does it have enough batteries for the duration of the interview?
- Do you have pen and paper with you in case you want to take notes during the interview?
- Before ending the interview, ask them if there is anything else they wanted to talk about that you did not ask them, as this often brings up unexpected stories.
- Let your interviewee know that you will share a copy of the interview with them by email or fileshare, and a transcript once it is completed.
- Ask them if you can get in touch with them if you have more questions. Additionally, let them know you are willing to listen should they have more to say about the subject matters discussed in the interview.
After the interview
- After the interview, ask them if they want to revise the consent form.
- Make sure all data is backed-up before editing the raw files and/or returning the equipment.
Sharing a copy of the interview and thank you notes
It is good practice to share a copy of the interview with the interviewee. It is part of the process of building a long-term relationship based on trust, and must be done by the interviewer themselves. Oral historians note many positive effects of this action, including the fact that listening to one’s own interview can initiate a second layer of engagement with the project where the interviewee is able to reflect on the interview’s dialogue and add to the conversation. We highly recommend that interviewers be open to the idea of returning for another session of interviewing, and keep channels of communication open.
Interview copies can be shared after they have been processed by the post-production team. Interviewers are expected to check back for a final copy of the interview and share it with the participant along with a Thank You note from the project director. Templates for Thank You notes are available in the Oral History Teamwork “Files” section.
Please make sure that the files are backed-up to the Oral History Google Drive immediately after the interview. Double-check that you can access the copied files before reformatting the SD cards.
There are filing conventions in place for all interviews done for the project. Interviews should be filed in the “Interviewees” folder under the interviewee’s name in the form “Last name, First name.” If there is not already a folder with that interviewee’s name, please make a new one. In the case that there are multiple interviewees, the primary interviewee’s name should be listed first with secondary participants’ names following afterward, i.e. “Wah, Fred, and Pauline Butling.” In the case of a group interview where all interviewees participate equally, list participants alphabetically, i.e. “Gadd, Maxine, Rhoda Rosenfeld, and Trudy Rubenfeld.”
In the interviewee’s named folder, please create a new folder for the interview using the following convention: [topic of interview] – [Interviewer’s Last name, First Name].
i.e. Writing in Our Time – Aubin, Mathieu
Within that folder, add the consent form for the project (.pdf). Consent forms must be scanned and both the hard copy and the digital copy should be submitted for the archives. The file name for digital copies of the consent form is: [YYYY-MM-DD_Last name, First name_Consent Form]
i.e. 2019-05-15_Bowering, George_Consent Form.pdf
Also, add a new folder with the date of the interview in the following format [YYYY-MM-DD].
Within the dated folder, please create the following subfolders:
- Oral History Description (.doc or .docx)
- Original audio or video (.wav or .mov)
- Circulation file (.mp3 or .mp4)
- Transcript (.pdf)
- Images (.jpg)
The Oral History Description document should contain the following information
- Name of the interviewee(s)
- Name of the primary and secondary interviewer(s)
- Date and place of the interview
- Number of the session in case there is more than one session of interview with the same person
- A set of keywords for the interview that will be shared with the transcriber and included as metadata
- Also make a note of any other details you may want the post-production person to know
Audio and video files should be named according to the following convention: [Date of Interview_Last name, First name_Topic_Session-Number]
i.e. 2019-04-15_Bowering, George_Writing in Our Time_Session-1
Original audio/video files should be uploaded to the “Original audio or video” folder in the proper format(s); circulation copies should be uploaded to the “Circulation file” folder in the proper format(s).
In the case of audio interviews, consider taking some photos or screenshots to document the process with the permission of the interviewee. Any such material can be uploaded to the “Images” folder. The project will have a dedicated hard disk at their host institution or at Concordia’s Amp Lab. All files must be backed up on this hard disk except for any limited access and anonymous interviews.
Anonymous interviews will be placed under lock and key at the host institution or Amp Lab during the processing of the interview, following which the audio/video files will be destroyed and only an approved transcript will enter the public archives. In the case that the interviewee requests limited access, the interviews will be placed under access control. Signed consent will be needed to access those interviews on the hard disk or in hard copy at the host institution or Amp Lab.
Interviewer’s reflection on the interview
Debriefing and reflecting on the interview process is an important part of the oral history methodology. All interviewers are encouraged to file a reflection piece on their interviews— any thoughts they may have had about the process or the outcome, the dynamics of the interview, or their reasons for doing the interviews. This will be a document on record, which will be published as “Notebook” entries in Teamwork. In time, these reflection pieces will be linked with the interview recordings and their transcripts in the Google Drive folder. There are many benefits to making these records public: they make the interviewing process (intentions and outcomes) more transparent; they provide instruction to future researchers; they offer a space for self-evaluation on the part of the researcher, which may be of benefit to others conducting similar research. Thus, we encourage interviewers to make these documents public whenever possible, unless doing so in some way compromises the interviewer or interviewee.
Oral history interviews have many layers to them. Since they place the interviewee’s subjectivity front and center in the research project, it is useful and ethical for the interviewer to reciprocate this subjective positioning. The interview is a conversation between two people who come from different positionalities and an analysis of the interview becomes richer with every layer that unfolds as part of the process. As researchers, we have the power to choose our interviewees and research topics. Our politics and interests shape the outcome of the project. It is only fair to make our own positioning visible in the process. Such an exercise also documents the process of interviewing and can be useful for analyzing the project’s methods at a later stage. Reflections on anonymous interviews should not have any indications of the interviewee’s identity. The interviewer and interviewee will decide whether or not to publicly share the reflections. We suggest giving the interviewee the chance to review your reflection before making it public.
Transcription is time-consuming. An hour-long interview can take up to nine hours to transcribe. Consult your supervisor and/or the co-applicant at your institution to see what resources are available to support transcription. Software and hardware for transcription can be made available through SpokenWeb. All transcribers will undergo a training workshop before beginning a project. Those who want to transcribe their own interviews also should attend a transcription workshop to learn the conventions and best practices. Once the transcriber has completed their training, they can refer to the SpokenWeb Transcription Guide for ongoing support.
Transcribers of limited access and anonymous interviews will need to sign a non-disclosure agreement before beginning their work. These interviews must be transcribed in a secure space at the host institution or at the Amp Lab. Limited access interviews and their transcripts will remain under access control in hard disks. Transcribers must not make copies of the files or transfer them to their own personal devices.
There are two clearly defined end-goals for the project’s oral literary history axis. One is populating the SpokenWeb site with interviews that will be navigable by interview, date, or topic. Like other audio recordings of speech in the SpokenWeb archives, we aim to link the transcript and audio together using hyperlinked timestamps The other goal of the project is to deposit the interviews on Compute Canada’s server for preservation during the duration of the SpokenWeb research program, and in institutional archives for long-term storage and consultation by researchers in the future. Further directions on long-term preservation will be developed in the near future.
All researchers involved with the project are therefore invited to share their ideas for ways to disseminate what is gathered through the interviews and engage with the collection.
We encourage interviewers to involve the interviewees at the dissemination stage of the project. Doing so is important to ensure that the interviewer continues the process of sharing authority with the interviewee beyond the initial stages of the project.