Whenever I interview my relatives, I always take notes and record the interview. It’s true that Gay Talese works without so much as a notebook, but his method doesn’t work for me, and it may not work for you either.
I take notes and record my interviews because family history for me is a part-time job rather than a profession. I fit my interviews into convenient time slots, usually at the end of my day, and I can’t transcribe an entire interview from memory as soon as the interview ends.
Besides, my memory isn’t that good.
Recording family interviews isn’t terribly complicated, but there are a few things to keep in mind. The main idea is to use a technology that’s suitable for your task. If you interview your relatives by phone, invest in a decent digital voice recorder.
I tried my first interview with an analog recorder, but the audio quality was so bad that I returned the device to the store after just one use. When I bought a digital recorder, I discovered that it required a recording controller, a phone with a 2.5 mm headset jack, and, of course, a headset.
All told, I spent about $250 on this rig. I consider it a good investment, because it makes crystal clear recordings. The digital voice recorder is also good for in-person interviews and general use.
If you interview your relatives in person, you may want to videotape your conversations. I have little advice to give you here, because I do my interviews by phone, and anyway, videography is not one of my skills. But whatever camera you choose, make sure it is of good quality, easy to use, and has appropriate interfaces to your computer and other equipment.
Before beginning your interview, test your equipment. Examine the quality of the recording or video. Practice using your recorder or camera so you can do so easily during the interview. Make sure you have extra batteries on hand.
If you use Skype to communicate with your relatives, you can also record those conversations, whether they are voice-only calls or videos. I don’t Skype with my relatives, because many of them are crippled by technophobia. But Skype might be a useful tool for other family historians.
Skype itself does not currently provide recording functionality, but several plugins are available to fill this gap, and many of them are free or quite inexpensive. I won’t go into details here, but if you’re interested, you can find out everything you need to know at digital inspiration.
I also take notes when I interview my relatives, even if I also record the interview. Recordings sometimes fail, after all. Your notes should capture basic information in addition to the good stuff. At a minimum, write down the name of your interviewee, the date, and location of your interview.
As soon as the interview is over, I log it, including the date, interviewee’s name, list of topics, and anything else I consider noteworthy. I also download the interview from my digital recorder to my computer, which is automatically backed up. Interviews are unique, unrepeatable moments, and I take no chances in safeguarding my recordings and notes.
I’d like to know what others do. Family historians, journalists: do you record your interviews? What are your procedures?
© 2011 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.
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