To be considered an oral history, tapes and
transcripts must be used when conducting an interview. It is important to remember that
the tape (either sound or video) is the document and should be consulted as such. The
context in which the oral history was recorded, the facial expressions of the interviewee
(in the case of videotapes), and the voice intonations are all essential elements of the
Step 1: Decide Who You Will Interview
There are three categories of potential interviewees:
1. The artist, if they are still alive. If you cannot
interview your subject, put this in the introduction to your thesis.
2. Second and Third Stream Art Relationships. This
category includes other artists, people in the art community who have had some kind of
relationship with your artist, or other artists associated with them, as well as other
people involved in art community.
3. Non-Art Associates. Includes friends, family, etc. who
have nothing to lose or gain by talking to you and will give a different kind of
perspective on the artist. As they are/were not in competition with the artist, they will
in many cases be the most informative.
Step 2: Decide What Information You Are After
Oral histories are 'the primary record of a public
experience' and should be used to supplement available existing documentation. Oral
histories provide valuable contextual information and are important for the ways in which
ideas are expressed and the ways in which events were perceived to have occurred. They
should not be used as evidence of chronological accuracy, as they essentially deal with
people's memories. This type of factual information always needs to be verified through
written sources, never oral. Understanding the ways in which oral histories are used to
study of the visual arts is essential to the researcher/interviewer as you play a major
role in the creation of the tape; the legitimacy of your project depends on the type of
information you are seeking from your subject.
Step 3: Locating and Contacting the Interviewees
Contact the museums or galleries which hold the artist's
works in their permanent collection, or have exhibited the artist's work most recently --
they should be able to direct you either to the artist or the artists dealer, or if
your subject is not alive, they can direct you to their estate or a relative. You can also
try to locate them in the conventional ways, such as the phone book or the new on-line
Telephone Directories listed below, which are great if you have to find someone outside
your own city:
To obtain Canadian numbers and addresses:
Postal Code Lookup is useful for verifying Canadian addresses and can be found at
Once you have located the interviewee, explain your
project thoroughly and formally in writing and let them know that you plan to tape the
interview with their permission. Advise them when to call (collect of course) to arrange
an interview. Use official letterhead where possible.
If your interviewee has not contacted you within three
weeks, contact them again, either in writing or by phone (if you have their telephone
number), to arrange a meeting. The interview should be set at a time and place (away from
distractions and noise) most convenient for the interviewee.
Get permission to tape the interview and determine the
conditions on access to the resulting tapes, keeping the following in mind:
Copyright Act (Canada): The copyright
law in Canada states that if an interview is taped, the interviewer holds the copyright,
unless questions have been submitted in writing prior to the interview, in which
case the interviewee will hold the copyright. This law holds even if the tapes are
deposited in an archive.
Ethically, tapes resulting from an interview are for YOUR
use only if anyone else wants access to the tapes, you should get written
permission from the interviewee, and this should be determined BEFORE you start the
interview wherever possible. Submit a consent form (print
this up from your computer) and discuss any restrictions the interviewee wishes to place
on who has access to the tapes if necessary. Print up a few extras in case other people
are consulted during the interview (especially if the questioning takes place in a private
home with family members around). Consent forms should be signed once the interview is
concluded, or you may also decide to sign the form only after reviewing the tapes or
transcription. Let the interviewee know that they can change their mind at any time during
the interview regarding the restrictions placed on the tapes. If you are depositing the
tapes in an archive, modify the consent form to your specifications.
Be sure to confirm the appointment a day or two before, be sure to keep the appointment,
and be on time for the interview (arrive early to check your equipment).
Step 4: Preparing for the Interview
It is crucial to prepare for the interview. Research your
topic and the interviewee thoroughly. It is useful to prepare written documentation
listing a basic chronology of dates and events, to give to the interviewee ahead of time
so that they are not spending time trying to remember this type of information (which will
not be accurate anyway).
After deciding what information you want to gain from the
interview (see Step 2), list the questions youd like to ask (although they will
probably get jumbled during the session). Note that questions will vary for each person
you interview, so prepare different questions for different interviews, and group the
questions logically, so that the interviewee can easily follow your train of thought.
Others questions will of course arise during the interview, but being prepared with a list
will help you stay organized. Try not to ask questions that can be answered with a simple
yes or no. If you do, wait a few seconds before continuing, as they may elaborate faced
with silence. Do not ask leading questions.
Listen to TV or radio interviewing. Practice interviewing a friend (about them, not your topic) to
acquaint yourself with the process of conducting an interview.
Step 5: Know the Equipment
If you will be recording the interview (audio, video, or
both), learn the equipment thoroughly, and make sure it is functioning well, before you
arrive for the interview. Use an adapter in preference to batteries, but if you use
batteries, bring extra. Bring extra tapes as well and label all sides of all tapes
beforehand. Use an external microphone if possible, not just the recorder's built-in
microphone, as the sound will be better and the voices clearer, especially if there is
more than one interviewee. Practicing on a friend (as mentioned above) will also allow you
to gauge how the equipment works, if it picks up external noise such as air conditioners
or outside traffic.
Remember, tapes make people more cautious when first
turned on, so do not talk about controversial subjects at the beginning. Give the
interviewee time to adjust to the intrusion of the equipment by asking simple questions,
such as confirming biographical data, continue with the work they are doing now, and only
then should you begin considering the topics you really want to discuss.
Step 6: The Interview
Dress appropriately. Do not wear anything
anything that will detract from the interview, as the interviewee will inevitably be
concentrating on you instead of the questions.
Be on time. In fact, tell the interviewee you will arrive
early to check your equipment.
Although many sources advise it, it is best not to
pre-interview the spontaneity is gone and this gives the interviewee time to think
too much about what they will say. You may however have an initial contact meeting in
which you explain your project without actually discussing your subject or the questions
you will be asking. At this point you can give the interviewee the prepared chronology
from Step 4. Let the interviewee know before you begin that they have the right at any
time to refuse to answer a question.
Place the tape recorder, if you are using one, between
you and the subject on a sold surface do not hold the microphone. Test it briefly
to make sure it is recording. If you have to turn it off at any point in the interview, do
not forget to turn it back on! Have your tapes numbered beforehand so that your attention
is not focused on the machine.
Distance yourself from the process know that you
are not the saviour who will make the artist you are researching famous.
Speak at a comfortable pace, and speak clearly. Listen
particularly to how people say things, not necessarily what they say. Allow the
conversation to flow and do not pass up an opportunity to ask other questions outside your
proscribed layout of questions. Allow the interviewee to speak, give them time to answer,
and do not cut them off or interrupt their train of thought. This may give the impression
that their answers are not important, or that you are hurrying through the interview.
Always look interested. If you are interviewing an
artist, look at their work if you are in their studio. If you see they are getting tired
(especially elderly subjects), offer to continue the interview at another convenient time.
Use your own judgement when it comes to personal
questions. If the interviewee seems uncomfortable answering sensitive questions, skip over
them. You can always come back to them later on if you feel the interviewee is more at
ease with you.
If the interviewee uses gestures or points to objects
without identifying them verbally, restate it for the tape recorder.
As you conclude your interview, ask if you can quote what
they have said using their name, and ask for suggestions about anyone else you should talk
to. Make sure that theres a sense that you can go back to the artist (second and
third stream interviews are usually one-time events).
Once the recording has stopped, make sure your tapes are
in order, unused tapes should be labeled blank.
Sign the consent form together (review access
restrictions once again in case the interviewee has changed their mind).
Step 5: After the Interview
Make notes for yourself as soon as you leave the
interview, adding your impressions.
Send a thank-you note within the week.
Step 6: Transcribing and Depositing the Material
with an Archive
There are several ways in which to transcribe interviews;
if you are depositing an interview with an archive, consult the archivist to find out
which style of transcription should be used. Transcription can be complete or partial, or
simply indexed (in which a list of subject headings are followed by time or tape numbers
to help locate a specific topic on the tapes). No matter which method you are using,
transcribe or index the tapes as soon as possible after the interview.
Any materials, such as documents or photos, loaned to you
should be returned within a reasonable time. Anything given to you should be properly
labeled to explain its significance, and deposited in an archive if necessary.