Third Interview is done: How to interview a shy person.

I just finished by third and final interview for this semester’s class on Oral History. Do to scheduling and subject availability, my last interview with my wife regarding her first year of college. We started to talk about the interview earlier today, discussed some various options: high school, college, work, etc, but settled on college because of my familiarity as that was the time period that we first meet. (similar to oral historians conducting research prior to an interview to understand the context around their subject matter).

I spent a little time coming up with questions, we sat down and talked a little about college and actually did a first interview without the recorder on since my wife was very uncomfortable with talking about herself. Unlike my previous subjects, who had stories that they wanted to tell, my wife does not like to talk about herself and is a very shy person, so having her elaborate about herself was not easy. After the first test interview, we perform the recorded interview, which my thought was too short and wanted to do better, so we recorded a second longer interview.

What did I learn from this.

When interviewing shy people, you did to talk about the subject matter, get them to calm down and think about the stories that they are going to tell. Ask many of your questions before you start recording, so you can hear the short ‘shy’ answer and you can prepare a reworded question to avoid the short answer and/or prepare some follow up questions to expand the interview.

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Next Generation Data Searches

In Michael Frisch’s article ‘Oral History and the Digital Revolution’, he discusses the various ways that we can look at or relate different audio or visual information. His article goes through a very long description of data, meta-data, logical relationships, and some basic search algorithms. I am going to try and summarize what I fell was his point and what I am taking from the article.

Most people think and approach life under a linear model, what am a doing next (go to work), what am I doing next week (vacation), etc. Actions and events lead somewhere, so most of our thoughts about searching follow a similar model. I am looking for a restaurant, or more specifically an Italian restaurant, etc. Many existing text search engines search for a group of entities that match the criteria: a restaurant may return 100 results, but an Italian restaurant may only return 10 items that match both search criteria. But the search ends there; you are only looking for the one item at the end of the single path.

However, what if the search was multi-directional, what if you approached the search like a spider web? Who do not move down a single path, you can move anywhere around the web, in any direction. You may start by searching for an Italian Restaurant, but end up move along a different access to find something completely unexpected. What he is proposing is not just changes to search engines, but how we use the search engine. The user or consumer of the audio/visual data needs to move beyond simple searching for the one item that they think of, they need to be willing to wander down different paths, find other items that are related in ways that they did not originally anticipate.

A current application to try is ‘PearlTrees’, it is an application that allows you to select either topics or websites that you might be interested in and then will make suggestions of other topics. For example, I select Lord of the Rings, and it comes back with a variety of suggestions from the obvious: Hobbit movie website, to the unexpected, ‘how to write you name in Elvish’, which in turn leads to learning language mechanisms, etc.. It is not the technology, it is how the next generation will consume the data in manners different that our generation does, or previous generation did.

Interview #2 In Review

I completed my second interview many weeks ago, and my initial reaction was that it was not very good. So, I let it wait until this last weekend when I listened to it and created an index. Now that that is done, I can take a moment and move past my initial reaction to come to the conclusion that it was worse that I thought.

There are many mistakes, but hopefully, my tale of sadness can help other people avoid some of my mistakes.

1. Take time to setup before starting the interview. That means, not just having your equipment plugged in, but also perform sound test (I could hardly hear myself on the recording).

2. Take time before the interview to collect your thoughts, either sitting in the car before going up to the door, or being in the recording room early, either way try to avoid feeling rushed.

3. Do not show the narrator your questions, it can limit there responses to the short list of your topics. Some of the best interviews are surprises. You can create a short one sentence theme if they ask, but I would avoid a detailed list of questions.

4. Know your subject, if they are public figures, they are more guarded, so look for opportunities for them to discuss subjects that do not threaten their legacy.

5. Have enough time to finish the interview, if you set a time limit, that makes both you and the narrator feel rushed.

Hey That’s My House (Part II)

I took Digital History during the fall of 2013 and one of our readings was Benjamin Filene’s article “If these Walls Could Talk”, so I am reposting (with some grammatical corrections) my blog post from Oct 2013 below.

The title of this blog is what I believe is the ultimately goal of the Minnesota History Center: to make every visitor feel like the house on Hopkins Street could be their home or a family member’s home. Connecting the history to the person is fantastic! (to quote the ninth Doctor).

The house is one of the best examples of ‘public history’ that I have read about. By creating ‘slices of life’ exhibits using common items, they are able to engage the visitors in a manner similar to how most people gather around their grandparent’s kitchen table to listen to stories or remember looking through old family photos. So instead of a grand historical presentation of famous ‘distant’ people, the house of Hopkins Street is a personal history. Not just of those individuals who lived there, but of each of the visitors whose families experienced similar events, and how those visitors engage and connect with each other.

It is through that engagement and interaction during their visits that guest dynamically expand the exhibit. The last few pages, reference different examples, such as the display about Fatty Joe delivery ice, was enhanced by the visitor telling childhood stories about milk truck deliveries in the summertime. That is the wonderful and great aspect of the Hopkins Street house, no two visits are the same, the specific display may be the same, but the ‘experience’ is based on your interaction with the other visitors and the ‘shared memories’ that are revealed.

It is interesting to re-read both the article and blog post from last year. What key points we take from an article can differ so much over time. Last year I read the article while I was beginning to prepare a podcast, so my impression from the article centered on the presentation of the material: how do we help make a connection with the visitors. However, this year, my class is focusing on gathering oral histories, on creating the legos that will be used in an exhibit instead of snapping the legos together to make the exhibit. Therefore, the earlier part of the article regarding reviewing census records and working with local groups to find people that lived in the house was the focus of my attention.

In addition, unlike my project for Main Street last year, this semester’s Parkland project has much closer parallels to the St. Paul house in the both were in ethnically changing neighborhoods that evolved over time. While the St. Paul neighborhood appears to have evolved slowly over time instead of the more rapid ‘flight’ that occurred in Parkland, there are still similarities: working class groups and families living out their lives.

Crowdsourcing History

This weeks readings Zeitlin and Filene both address the topic of public input into history. Zeitlin’s article regarding building a map of a city as a collection of various oral recordings is a fascinating approach to help connect the public audience with the city and its history. It’s is effectively crowd sourcing the creation of primary sources for historians, it allows anyone to participate in both creating and consuming history.

Filene’s second article takes a much deeper analysis of how public input “fits into” historical studies. He asks all of the questions that I have been asking myself. Historical analysis includes multiple sources, peer review, and critical analysis. While most of these interviews and stories are accurate and useful, how do we guard against the occasional tall tale? How do we filter them out, should we filter them out. Should the oral interview be used as literal and factual or should we consider it as how the narrator “perceived” something. All these question come to mind and my answers are still shifting back and forth. As of the writing of this blog, my opinion is that they should not be filtered, let them all go, but the curator or organizer must make sure they frame the exhibit or collection of data within the research and verified facts.

In the end, I think we need to recognize that these oral histories are no different than many of the historical biographies written in centuries past, from Caesar to General Grant. Future historians may not use these stories as the central factual nugget, but instead the will hopefully become a mosaic or pattern that can be used to show trends and changes.

Nuts and Bolts of My First Oral Interview

Last week I performed my first oral interview, I was nervous and unsure of myself; luckily my narrator was great, and she was open and (thankfully) talkative. I will refrain from reviewing the interview itself, as I have no experience to compare it to, so my blog for this interview is more focused on the technical issues (the nuts and bolts).

When setting up the interview you first need to identify two independent moving objects and find some point of convergence. Ok that is my inner engineer explaining that we need to find some point in time that the narrator is available and one of the recording devices are available. Prior to calling my narrator, I did review her notes on availability and compared it to the recorder’s schedule to identify a few potential times. Luckily for me, she had requested a fairly specific time, but this is something that I need to be aware of for my future interviews.

Scout out the area, for my first interview, the narrator had requested that we meet on Sunday at the main library, so the week prior to the interview, I visited the library, talked with the staff to find a best location (for the interview, it was the meeting room in the basement). But, the scouting, allowed me to know how long it would take me to get there, were to park and were to go once I got there. This also allowed me to describe what room within the building to my narrators when we spot a few days before the interview to finalize the time.

Finally, I arrived about 30-45 minutes early, setup the recording equipment, had my wonderful wife help me by playing the role of narrator, so I could perform a couple of sound test to make sure the background noise was minimal and what volume was best.

My hope was that this preparation helped make the narrator feel at ease and to maximize the little bit of time we had for the interview, which bring me to my last nuts and bolts preparation issue: make sure you have some overlap time. In our case, my narrator could not be there until 4:00PM, which left only one hour before the library closed, so unfortunately, our interview was artificially short. The next time, I will make sure that I have at least an hour buffer for over run and clean up.

So, Should All Historians get Personal

My previous blog commented on Delores Hayden, Roy Rosenzwig and David Thelen’s articles regarding how all history is personal. The two articles made excellent points about how regardless of an individual’s perspective, how they interact with history is fundamentally personal. Either you are an individual who experienced an event (you stormed the beaches at Normandy), you have some cultural or familial tie (your uncle stormed the beaches at Normandy) or you relate the event to some other personal experience (your cousin was in Khe Sanh or Irag, etc). Or it could be more visual or audial, the older gentleman providing the interview of his World War II experience reminds you of your grandfather. This can be encouraging if he served in the US Army, or discouraging if he served in a Nazi SS battalion (no one can picture their kind grandfather working in a death camp). My point with all of this rambling is that the consumer of history instinctively make the story personal, but what about the historian, should they make it personal or should they remain detached?

Our reading last week included and article by Dr. Fosl about her book on the late Ann Braden. She discusses the long process of researching the book, of her long and sometimes arduous evolving relationship with Ann herself. Initially Ann was very reluctant to help, however over time their professional relationship evolved into a friendship, even to the point the Dr. Fosl was concerned about Ann’s ‘voice’ dominating the book, but not enough that Dr. Fosl did not allow Ann to proof read the book before the final submission to the editor.

As a historian, we hear the mantra of ‘being objective’; however, no one can be a purely logical robot, we all have life experiences that shape the prism through which we view the world. And after working with someone over a decade it is hard not to become friends. The risk that any historian runs, where does the relationship and the book cross the line from biography to autobiography with a ghostwriter. That is the line that Dr. Fosl danced around. While my reading is limited to her essay, I cannot venture an opinion regarding the book. Based on the essay, she was aware of the risk and tried to keep it on the biography side.

Some of the book’s reviews complained about Dr. Fosl lack of critical analysis regarding some of Ann’s more sensitive subjects such as her membership in the communist party (she was), but did this make the book ‘bad history’? I do not think so, our class discussion made an excellent point that the close friendship allowed for a deeper revelation of Ann herself. Information that may not have been discovered without the close friendship between Ann and Dr. Fosl; however, the cost of that revelation is the avoidance of the sensitive subjects.

There will be other books that present a critical analysis of Ann’s life and that address her membership in the communist party, but any future historian should not limit their research to one book, they should take the whole spectrum of books to paint a full picture of Ann, they just need to also ‘do diligence’ regarding the sources to understand the context that the historian presented the information.

This diligence is no different that reading a newspaper, not all articles are equal; there is a difference between reporters, columnist and editorial writers. Knowing who wrote the article and why helps the reader better digest what is written to be able to sift through facts and opinions. One article is not more valuable that another, they all are valid articles but they serve different purposes and have different goals.