Showing posts with label tips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tips. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Bite what you can chew: Project focus for your oral history or folklore project

I'm back in the office after spending the end of last week at the Alberta Museums Association's annual conference, where the theme this year was on Intangible Cultural Heritage, and I'm already back into the thick of things.

Conferences tend to revitalize me, and get me thinking about what it is we do here at the Heritage Foundation's ICH program. And being asked questions about what other people could do to pursue projects helps get me focussed on practical approaches.

So it was with delight today that I had a phone conversation with Madison Sharman, who I met briefly at the AMA conference (you can check out her art and photography page on facebook).  The organization she works with is embarking on an oral history project, and she had questions about where to start, and what to do with collected materials.

Many of her questions seemed very familiar, and are ones often asked by groups starting out doing some kind of ethnographic documentation project. So I gave her some of my thoughts, starting out with project focus.

I've seen a lot of community projects get bogged down quickly. They all start from a similar place: a sense that stories or traditions are under threat, and that a need to collect information from the community before it vanishes. It is a legitimate fear. One of the big reasons we do documentation work is to collect that sort of information whilst we can.  For that reason, and for other reasons, lots of groups or museums have started oral history collection projects.

But often they go nowhere.

I think one of the big reasons for this is that organizations simply try to collect too much stuff all at once. In haste to collect everything they can, they end up with a morass of audio or video recordings and notes, with no clear focus or thematic similarity. In collecting everything, they've ended up with information that doesn't have a clear purpose, or eventual use. And often, it ends up sitting in a box, under someone's desk, forgotten.

Sometimes, the people they collect from, their informants,  are uncertain what is expected from them. While they have stories and memories to share, some aren't sure where to start with their stories while being interviewed.

Much of this can be solved by having a clear set of goals, and setting a very specific project scope, with targeted questions. Initially, some community groups resist this, in their goal of wanting to collect as much as they can before it vanishes. I always encourage groups to start small, work on a meaningful project, that results in a clear final product that they can share back with the community.

Think about why you want to do the project, and what you hope to end up with when the project is completed. Instead of doing a project on the history of your town, maybe pick one street, or one shop, or one park. Instead of doing a project on women's work in general, look at one particular craft or occupation or tradition bearer. Don't be afraid to start small, or stop when you think the amount of data you have collected is getting too large to process. Once you finish a project, and have something to show for it, you can always do another project! I much prefer seeing a couple small projects finished, than one unwieldy, behemoth of a project that is never ended.

A finished, understandable,  and accessible project means that when you go forward looking to do another project, you can show what you've done. This way, you, your group, future collaborators, partners, informants, and, importantly, funders, know what you are capable of.

Want some tips on things to think about before you start a project? Check out our project planning checklist! Download it, share it with your group, print it off, and make notes on it. You don't need to fill out every block on the checklist, but hopefully it will give you a better sense of the scope of the project you are embarking on, before you end up with a box of recordings stuck under your desk and piles of unfinished paperwork.

Those are my thoughts! Thanks, Maddy!

Got a question about starting a folklore or oral history project for your town? Email me at or call 1-888-739-1892 ext 2.

- Dale Jarvis

Thursday, February 7, 2013

12 tips for a better oral history or folklore interview

Nervous about your first oral history or folklore interview? It's OK, I'm here to help! Here are some tips and tricks to get you ready. And if you want, you can download this as a one-page PDF for handy reference.

1. If you haven't done any oral history interviewing before, think first about a focus or theme for your project.  Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this interview? What information do I want to get?”

2. Think about the type of interview you wish to do.  Life History Interviews focus on the life history of a person and the changes they may have experienced;  Topic Interviews collect information about a specific subject, workplace, skill or occupation.

3. Do an informal “pre-interview.”  Be clear with your “informant” - the person you are interviewing - that the interview is being recorded, and what it will be used for. Have a discussion in advance about the type of information of interest to you.

4. In general, have a list of topics in mind you want to cover in the interview, rather than a set list of questions. You might have some written starting questions to begin with, but then shift to your topic list and be flexible.

5. Start off with some easy questions, such as short biographical questions about name, date of birth, parents and the like. This gives you good identifying information at the start of the interview, and helps relax your informant. You can ask more detailed or personal questions after you both settle into the conversation.

6. Ask questions one at a time. If your question has two or three parts, ask them separately.

7. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a "yes" or "no" answer. Questions that start with “how” or “why” get you more interesting answers.

8. Use plain, straightforward words and avoid leading questions. Rather than asking “I suppose life as a fisherman was hard?”, ask “Can you describe what life was like for a fisherman?”

9. Ask follow-up questions. Then ask some more! If something is unclear, ask for clarification.

10. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to which you think you already know the answers. You might get suprising answers!

11. Be a good listener, and refrain from talking too much yourself. Use body language, nodding, and smiling to encourage your informant. Let them know, visually, that you are interested.

12. Don't let periods of silence fluster you. Just wait and don’t rush the interview. Sometimes people need a moment to complete their thoughts. If you are silent, chances are your informant will fill the gap by saying something more about the question you asked last.