I recently received various messages with questions about recording interviews (which I mentioned in my blog post here). I thought others might have similar questions, so I figured I’d put the answers all in one place.
A couple of the questions were related to the type of recorder to use. There are some “note recorders” out there that only record for a couple of minutes (basically, the length of time to dictate something like “remember to pick up milk on the way home”). I discourage the use of these for any type of family interviews. You will be constantly restarting the recording and drawing attention to the recorder. Instead, look for one that allows you to record for extended periods of time. It should allow you to store the recordings in separate folders on the recorder. If you can find one that has an SD card expansion slot, that’s even better. The more your subject can “forget” that they are being recorded, the more candid their responses will be, and the more likely you are to get “unfiltered” family stories.
I have the (now discontinued) sibling of this one (affiliate link!), and have been using it for various tasks for the past 6 years, and it’s still going strong. You can plan on each hour of recording taking about 1 GB of space, depending on the quality.
I personally don’t do video recordings because I don’t like to be on camera. Ever. So I can’t make any recommendations for video equipment. I can tell you this. If you decide to record your subject on camera, GET A TRIPOD, preferably one that stands on the floor (or other firm surface that you or your interviewee are not leaning or working on). I have this one (another affiliate link!), which I like because the legs are adjustable and it accommodates all of my cameras. Start the camera before you begin the interview so you can get all the weirdness out of the way. Don’t worry, you can edit it later.
Sometimes your subject lives far away or for some other reason can only be interviewed by telephone. In these cases, you can either take copious notes, or you can record the phone call (if your subject consents – check your local laws regarding recording telephone calls). There are several ways that you can record these conversations. If you have a smart phone, you might consider getting a Google Voice account, which allows you to record straight from the app. Unfortunately, it only allows you to record incoming calls. On the plus side, the recordings are saved on Google’s servers, so you can just download the audio file to your computer. There are other free and paid apps you can get for your smartphone, but you’ll want to review them and try them out before you use them. Some of them require the ability to record from your speaker to your microphone, which iPhone won’t do.
If you choose one of the above formats, always make sure you record the date, time, location, and the full name of the interviewee at the beginning.
Interviews by Correspondence
If your subject refuses to be recorded, doesn’t own a phone, or is a vampire, your only option may be to interview them via written correspondence. If you select this route, you want to avoid overwhelming them with a packet of interview questions that resembles War and Peace. Send a few questions at a time (10 is a nice round number). I also like to print mini photos on a few sheets of paper with space for your subject to identify the individuals in the photos. This may also trigger other memories, so leave plenty of room in case they want to tell that story. Make sure they know they can write on the back of the paper if necessary. I sent some of these photo pages to my grandmother before she passed away, and she was able to identify people in several photos that I would still never know who they were.
More Tips for Successful Interviews
– If you can, schedule your interview far enough in advance that you and your subject have time to prepare.
– Make sure you have water (or other appropriate beverage) readily available for you and/or your subject. The last thing you need is a 5-minute coughing fit in the middle of your interview.
– Prepare your questions in advance. You might even want to share them with your subject so they can begin thinking about them ahead of time. I recommend saving photos until your interview. This allows you to capture organic responses when your subject sees the photos for the first time.
– Try to record your interview in a quiet location with very little background noise. (Trust me, I put my recorder on the table when 5 of us went for pizza in New Jersey and I could barely hear any of the 3 hours of recorded conversations).
– Ask your subject before the interview if there are any topics that are “off limits.” This will prevent any hard feelings later, and makes it less likely that your subject will call an end to your interview prematurely.
– Make sure you have pertinent photographs to trigger memories for your subject. You will want to hold these up in front of your camera before you begin discussing them if you are recording with video. If you are recording with audio, you might want to assign a number to each photo beforehand and refer to that number during your interview.
– I cannot stress this enough: TRANSCRIBE your recorded interviews!
– Don’t use the recorder in “voice activated” mode. This will cut off the first word(s) spoken after a significant pause. You might miss something important, or the meaning of what your subject says could be altered by that missing word.
– Don’t place the recorder so far away from your subject that it’s hard to hear them later. Place it on the table or other sturdy surface between you and your subject. If anyone feels self-conscious or uncomfortable, you might place a folded piece of paper like a tent over the recorder to hide it from view so they will eventually forget it’s even there.
– Don’t be a bully! If your subject doesn’t remember or doesn’t want to discuss a certain topic, don’t force them. That’s the fastest way to end your interview.
There are also many apps (far too many to list here) designed to preserve family stories, which I will discuss in a separate blog post.
How do YOU preserve your family stories?
Do we share ancestors? Email me: lostancestors AT gmail DOT com
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