Early Lessons

As I described in my last post, my entrée into oral history was a solo pursuit, albeit one aided and abetted by the published wisdom of more experienced practitioners. Between books, websites, Amazon reviews, and some old fashioned trial and error, here are a few of the lessons I have learned so far:

1. With equipment, less can be more. When I first decided that I would like to incorporate oral histories into my dissertation, I assumed that I would need an expensive recorder and microphone. While I am sure that these technologies would improve the sound quality of my recordings, I have been very satisfied with the low-budget, low-tech equipment I ended up purchasing. I selected the Olympus WS-822 GMT Voice Recorders with 4 GB Built-In-Memory because, for under $100, it offered sufficient memory, a built-in USB, and had a 4.4 (out of 5) star rating on Amazon. Having done almost 20 hours of interviewing with it so far, I can attest that the memory is indeed quite capacious. I often have multiple interviews stored on the device at once, because I do not delete them until I have two copies on my hard drive, one in cloud backup, and two audio copies burned to CD-R. It has a feature where you can save recordings into folders, and although it's a simple A-E folder system that cannot be renamed or re-ordered, I find it offers just enough organization so that I don't make silly mix-ups. The built-in USB is probably my favorite feature, though, because I simply drag and drop files onto my Desktop as soon as I finish an interview. Finally, the battery life is excellent--though I replace the battery after every 2-3 sessions because all of the advice I've read says that it pays to be paranoid. 

I pair the recorder with the Olympus ME-52W Noise Canceling Microphone. Amazon suggested it when I selected the recorder, as one of the "frequently purchased with" items. I'm very, very happy I spent the extra $13 and would highly recommend it, with a few reservations. I have found that, when clipped to my interviewers shirt, it picks up both of our voices quite nicely. My voice is strong and I am careful to speak up and enunciate when I ask my questions, but the mic has also successfully captured a few lower and raspier voices. The noise canceling feature is difficult to evaluate because I've predominantly used it in quiet office environments, but I still think it does a decent job of buffering out background noises. My biggest reservation is that the lapel clip on the  mic requires some agility--the clip is quite tight and the grip is not ergonomic--and several of my interviewees have struggled with attaching it to their shirts. Overall, however, I think it's a bargain and definitely worth trying out!

2. Don't ask for more consent than is necessary. After reading Doing Oral History, I decided that I needed a "Gift of Deed" form from each of my interviewees. The form asked interviewees to release their copyright claims (to the audio and transcript of their interview) to me and to an archive where I would eventually donate their oral history. I decided on this for two reasons. First, it's a "best practice" in oral history to make interviews accessible to the broader public by giving them to a library. Second, the book was written for someone seeking to do a large oral history project on a broad topic (and not, say, as a small part of a dissertation). In that case, the whole project would be designed with an archive or library in mind. After my first interview, I realized that a "deed of gift" form was too much, too soon. Asking people to release their copyright was an intimidating and legalistic request, especially for the small possibility that I might donate the oral histories in the future. I would like to do this eventually, and think what I have collected would be of immense value to academics in many disciplines, but for now my focus is on gathering what's necessary to write my dissertation. The informed consent that I ended up drafting makes clear that my questions will relate to only a few topics (participation in or relationship to activities: at the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood; within the Jewish community of northern Manhattan; or in other venues that attempted to create or improve interethnic/interracial relations amongst neighborhood residents), and then clearly states how I will use the interviews:  

Your taped interview and transcript may be quoted directly, paraphrased, or used to interpret historical events within Avigail Oren’s dissertation project and related research studies (such as articles, conference papers, and presentations).

I think this is the right balance of information for an ethical informed consent; it allows people to make an educated decision about what they will say or discuss on the record, but does not discourage a good conversation by burdening the interview with the potential judgement of a future public (that may or may not materialize). I have verbally told each interviewee about the possibility of donating their oral histories in the future, and when the time comes I will work with an archivist and my interviewees to properly and ethically make their materials public. 

3. "Why?" is better than "How?". It seems obvious, but the hardest part of this project for me has been accepting that people don't necessarily remember the historical events that are important to me and my dissertation. Memories are solidified as narratives, and details often fall out of stories over the course of time. I have heard some really beautiful and compelling stories, many of which are historically very interesting, but they only tangentially answer my questions about how something happened. When I press for details, people often just cannot remember. My friend, who has several years of experience with oral history, suggested that I incorporate more "why" questions. For example, if someone cannot remember an event you offer them details and then ask "why do you think this happened that way?" Or, "why did you/he/she/they make that decision?"  The idea is that people remember their motivations and interests more vividly than they recall the particularities of an event. I've only had one opportunity so far to incorporate this strategy, so I will have to report back on its efficacy.

I could not have done this project without the advice and support of books, the internet, and friends, but, as with any pursuit, there are some things you just have to learn by doing it!