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The Harlem Oral History Project

Ron Greele

On Saturday, April 10 Ron Greele, of Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office and the longtime collaborator with We Care gave our interns an overview on conducting an oral history interview.

He told the group, “Preparation is crucial. Remember: What you do before the interview is key. Sit down by yourself before the interview – plan out what you want to be discussed, think about your goals for the interview. He suggested the interviewer identify categories and subcategories for the conversation – what he called an “outline of your logic” But he also said that an interviewer must be flexible and able to move through the subjects in one’s notes out of the order that one planned them. Greele emphasized: “Go with the flow of your interviewee. Your logic may not match your subject’s! There are two extremes in interviewing – two challenges: Knowing your subject too well and not knowing your subject at all. Remember to be open-minded about your subject – free to change your mind or your perception of that person, through the conversation.”

Ron’s talk included an emphasis on research techniques, encouraging potential interviewers to know their subject. Ron suggested the students include such topics as history, past experiences, educational and work background, and relationship to the community in their research and questions. He told the interns “let them know that you know something about them and or their community within the first 10 minutes of the interview”.

“How do you learn about people?” he asked them. The answers — for public figures were notable people, try Google or LEXIS-NEXIS. To learn about the general community, get a sense of the “world” in which the person lives. Find ways to open up “a realm of memory”, he said. Another tip: look through the census from a year or years that you want to ask about.

“Ask questions that invite long, informative, interesting answers.” Often these are big or broad questions. It’s a good idea to start with easier questions, to get the interviewee comfortable and embed your tough questions within the easy ones. It’s important to win the trust of someone you’re going to interview. Listen and respond; ask thoughtful follow-up questions. A good interview is a dialogue, conversation. Take cues from the best and worst conversations you’ve had. Avoid extreme agreement or disagreement; agreeing to disagree is often a good strategy. Respect is always key.

Ask two-part questions. For example, in the first part you might say, “The New York Times described you as…” Then you might say “Do you find this an appropriate characterization?”

Remember that people like to talk about their own histories, especially if you begin your interview comfortably, with confidence. If you have a very limited amount of time – stay specific! Explain what you want to talk about (the general subject or theme) with your interview briefly beforehand.


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