Living Archives of the Visual Arts Researching the Visual Arts in Canada

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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 document.


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 artist’s 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 you’d 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 distracting. Avoid 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 there’s 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.




The art of conversation. By Peter Burke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993. Concordia University Library Call # P 95.45 B87 1993

The Canadian Oral History Association (COHA)

For a very small membership fee, COHA will advise you on interview procedures and consent forms, locate archival deposits and interviews already done by others, and advise you how to safeguard collected photos, documents, tapes and interview transcripts. Consult the Website for a list of contacts in each province, guides and publications, and links to other points of interest on the Internet related to oral histories. Publishes Journal - Canadian Oral History Association / Journal - Societe canadienne d'histoire orale. Ottawa: COHA. Concordia University Library Call # Periodical FC 1 C4X 1975-ONWARD.

Concordia University Archives (Visual Arts Archives)

Oral History Association

The Tape-Recorded Interview: A Manual for Field Workers in Folklore and Oral History. By Edward D. Ives. 2nd ed. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, c1995. Concordia University Library Call # GR 45.5 I93 1995


Directories to Oral Histories

Directory of oral history collections. By Allen Smith. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1988. Concordia University Library Call # Reference D 16.14 S64X 1988.

Guide to oral history collections in Canada/ Guide des fonds d'histoire orale au Canada. By Normand Fortier. Ottawa: Canadian Oral History Association/ Societe canadienne d'histoire orale, 1993: Call # Reference Z 688 O52F67 1993.

Oral history: an annotated bibliography. By Robert Perks. London: British Library National Sound Archive, c1990. Concordia University Library Call # Reference D 16.14 P47 1990.

Oral history index: an international directory of oral history interviews. Westport: Meckler, c1990. Concordia University Library Call # Reference D 16.14 O74 1990.


Consent Forms

Print up the consent forms provided below (or copy and paste them into a word processing document and alter them for your needs). Bring several copies along to the interview in case you interview more than one person (such as other family members or friends), or in case the interviewee decides to change the restrictions placed on who has access to the tapes .

Basic English Consent Form


E-mail Discussion Lists

Post any questions you may have concerning oral histories or copyright questions to the following lists:


Canadian historical researchers' e-mail discussion group, includes oral history in its topics as well.


Information on subscribing can be found at


Last updated: 23 septembre 2007


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