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The E-Sylum:  Volume 9, Number 40, October 1, 2006, Article 11

TIPS FOR ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWS

Dick Johnson writes: "Earlier this year I wrote in The E-Sylum
of my saga obtaining the equipment to do numismatic oral histories
(vol 9, no 5, article 5). I have now done a number of these,
primarily with private mint officials and engravers. I have learned
some tips I would like to pass along and encourage other numismatic
researchers to do research by phone. You might still want to make
a trip to dig in archives and old records, but try to do as much
by phone with live people before hand.

I learned oral history is very much like what a reporter does in
interviewing for a news story. You ask questions and you get answers.
Memories of my brief time as first editor of Coin World come flooding
back to my mind. But most reporters jot down brief statements,
phrases or words to remind themselves what was said. Then they must
immediately write the article from these abbreviated mental joggers
while the statements are still fresh in their minds.

Oral history recordings give you exact quotations and the luxury of
going back again and again to precisely what was said. It even gives
you insight in HOW it was said which you can't get from notes. You
can do your writing much later when a need arises or you have
additional information you can intersperse with what was recorded.

Here are some tips I have learned first hand:

(1) Do your homework. Have a list of questions on hand before you
call your interviewee. Those deadly pauses while you think of
another question breaks the rhythm of the interview.

(2) Plan for the interview length no longer than an hour. Fatigue
sets in rapidly for both parties after that length of time.

(3) Dictate a statement as soon as you turn on the recorder. Give
date, name of the interviewee and subject right up front.

(4) Omit your own comments (my cardinal error). You can, if you
must, impress your interviewee with how you phrase your questions,
that you are knowledgeable about the subject. You can do this by
using the jargon of the field in your questions. The interviewee
will pick up on this.

(5) Jump in immediately when a word or name comes up that you do
not understand. Ask for it to be repeated, or spelled out. (But
don't do this so often it breaks the speaker's train of thought.
You can make a list of these and question at the end of the
interview.)

(6) Afterwards label those tapes as soon as possible. Nothing
is worse than a stack of tape cassettes with unknown contents.

(7) Transcribe at leisure. For me it takes 40 hours to transcribe
an hour of tape. I know. I am slow. (That $3,000 computer hardware
and software that immediately puts the text on your computer screen
and records it as each party speaks seems more desirable all the
time.)

Finally, (8) Make dup tapes and store offsite or send to the
interviewee. Perhaps as several researchers build a library of
these tapes one of the major numismatic libraries will want to
become a repository of all numismatic oral histories. Convince
me how you will catalog or make a finding aid of these, conserve,
shelve these and such.

The best interview I did was with Ron Landis of the Gallery Mint.
We did it in two takes and there was so much "meat" I have already
written two articles from that interview and there is still unused
material there.

Oh, one more tip. Use land lines, cell phones are not good --
unreliable and a chore to hold to your ear for an hour."

NUMISMATIC ORAL HISTORY SAGA
esylum_v09n05a05.htm

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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