In this month’s Year in the Life, Rachel Fellman gets serious about oral histories.
I spend a lot of my time taking oral histories. I don’t have any background as a documentarian, but the people with firsthand knowledge of our museum’s subject steadfastly refuse to get younger, and I don’t want to make them wait for me to master Premiere Pro. As soon as I arrived at my present job, I had a camera in my hand.
I’d like to share some of my tips, which are no substitute for formal study:
- Commit to the idea that the perfect is the enemy of the good. There’s no point in gazing wistfully at previous archivists who’ve edited together flawless, professionally lit reels whose subjects sound like they’re on The Moth Radio Hour. Those archivists took a long time to get there, and you’ll take a long time to get there too. In the meantime, you’ve got to learn somehow. The stories won’t be worse because you shot them less beautifully.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People really like to help with oral histories! They’re appealing projects, and you won’t need to convince anyone of their worth. Last week, a librarian on the other side of the country shot a history for me while I asked the questions via Skype. My advocacy technique: I asked. (Also, he was a better camera operator than me, and had a boom mic and a real light.)
- For the love of Pete, record backup audio. Your phone has a voice memo function. Use it.
- Carry batteries for everything. Carry spare cables if possible. Never underestimate the tendency of equipment to break. (Remember Fellman’s Law: the further you have traveled for an oral history, the more likely the equipment is to break.)
- A lapel mic really makes the difference between an amateur recording and a professional one.
- Some interviewees will want questions provided in advance; others will prefer a spontaneous interview; still others will want to submit their own list of topics. It behooves you to be accommodating. Their comfort will be the single deciding factor in whether this comes out well — other than the lapel mic — and this isn’t the time to be philosophically rigid.
- Don’t be afraid to let the conversation ramble. Good material will often happen serendipitously, and offhand remarks can lead to new topics you hadn’t considered. By the same token, don’t be afraid to lead in slowly, with chatty getting-to-know-you questions. If this is worth doing, it’s worth taking an extra half hour, and these questions help make people comfortable in a difficult, artificial situation.
- Be as interested in the interviewee as in the subject of the interview. You will learn more about the subject this way.
- It’s best to talk as little as possible. For the sake of getting the story out, though, you won’t want to be a stickler about this.
- If the interviewee offers to do a magic trick, say yes.