Pilot Interview Feedback

As any oral historian would contend, recording the life stories of interviewees is a process, a process which we had the privilege of piloting in early May. This pilot interview provided the opportunity to test our procedures and questions, while challenging us to troubleshoot along the way.

The list below outlines my reflections on the trial-run interview, which will enable us to refine the Project’s procedures for future interviews with English alumni:

  • Record interviewees’ verbal consent at the beginning of the interview.
  • Revise questions so they cannot be answered with a simple yes/no response.
  • Include more questions about alumni time at Denison to encourage interviewees to think more critically about their time as an English major.
  • At the conclusion of the interview, ask interviewees if they have any final thoughts and contributions.
    • This includes a conversation about what selections (if any) interviewees’ would like edited from their life stories.
    • Confirm that this is recorded on our films.

  • Communicate to interviewees that the recording can be stopped and/or paused at any time.
  • Ask interviewee’s how the role of literature shapes their relationships with other people, including parents, siblings, children, spouses, co-workers, friends, etc.?
  • Allow interviewees’ time to craft their responses; communicate that it is absolutely acceptable to use a minute or two to collect one’s thoughts.
  • Record everything! Leave the camera on and recording as much as possible.
  • Tell interviewees’ how to access the interview recordings (likely through Google drive) for their review.

First Interview Reflections

Last week, we conducted our first test interview and we learned a lot from it. Some minor details about lighting and camera angles could be improved along with microphone strategies and simply leaving the camera on after the interview has ended.

We discussed better possible questions and how we could help the interviewee remember more. Asking more warm up or memory jogging questions would help the interviewee open up and discuss her life in greater detail. It would also help to tell the interviewee that it is okay to pause and think. Interviewees need a chnace to remember their experiences and if they feel they need to constantly talk, it is hard for them to recall everything they might want to discuss.

The most interesting thing I was left to consider after the interview was how to ask the interviewees about parenting. As Dr. Martin said, we do not want an entire archive of interviews where women talk about their experineces as parents and men never mention it. That would obviously seem sexist, even if we had no intention to single women out as the sole homemaking partner.

While discussing possible solutions to this problem, we considered a couple of options. First, we could simply let the interviewee bring up parenting and ask questions from there, but this method would probably result in women talking more about parenting than men simply because it is more likely for women to talk about parenting. This leads me to our next solution, we could ask everyone prior to the interview whether they are parents. Of course, this would mean we need to tailor our script to each interview but it seems like a rather simple solution to the problem. Both men and women would be asked about how their English degree has impacted their role as a parent. Furthermore, we need to be mindful of asking men follow up questions on their role as a parent if they tend to discuss parenting less than the women.

I found this problem interesting because parenting is a job and for some people it may be a career. Unpaid labor is labor and it should be recognized not only by our project and in our archive but by society. Including unpaid labor and domestic work in our interviews is one way we can promote this viewpoint.

I am actually very excited to learn about the way that a degree in English changes a parent’s perspective. Our first interviewee said that her ability to read and retain information has made her a better mom because she was able to properly research parenting issues rather than listening to the opinion of one perdiatrician. This one example shows that the ability to read and write effectively is extremely useful and it is not limited to writing memos and reading corporate documents. I am interested to see how other people have incorporated their English degrees into their daily lives and as unpaid labor.



Understanding Transcription

Scholar Henry Glassie describes an interviewee’s dictation of oral history as a process by which truth is constructed through recall and discovered:

“When [the interviewees] string facts into narratives, they will create something other than the factual past, if only by dint of omission, and the dynamics of presentation, but they do not do so to fool people but to help them by driving at a larger truth than that trapped in the factual scraps … their joy is finding, holding, manipulating truth” (Abrams 47).

Communicating these intricacies of oral histories through transcription, he argues, proves particularly challenging. Oral historian Raphael Samuels warns that the process of transcribing inevitability involves a certain degree of distortion; scholar Linda Shopes agrees, arguing that transcribing processes are inherently limited due to the restricting nature of language. Therefore, oral history practitioners must minimize the “mutilation” of an interviewee’s life story as spoken words are transferred to the printed page.

Above all else, existing literature stresses the importance for transcriptions to reflect the authenticity and originality of the speaker. Any departures threaten to “vandalize” the original oral account.

The best practices outlined below seek to ensure the originality of the speaker through transcripts.

  • The transcription must be a detailed, word-by-word rendering of the oral testimony with minimal editorial intervention.
  • The transcription must be cross-checked, which is typically done by the interviewer who makes edits where she deems necessary. It is advisable that other researchers engage in the process to check for accuracy and add corrections if necessary.
  • Annotations should be added to increase contextual understanding.
  • Verbal tics, repeated words, unfinished sentences, incomplete phrases, stuttering, gestures, tones, mispronunciations, dialects, cadence, etc. should be maintained in transcriptions to adhere to the interviewee’s authenticity.
  • Expressions, paralinguistic cues to meaning, and the interpersonal dynamic that occurs when two people talk face-to-face should be recorded in the transcript.

Ultimately, Samuel warns, “Unless recordings can be preserved in their original integrity, and made freely available for other researchers to consult, they will remain locked forever in the preoccupation of the collector, immune to criticism, and incapable serving as a base for continuity enquiry” (Abrams 22).

For more information — including examples and references — please refer to “Archiving, Transcription Process” on the shared Basecamp project.

Understanding Metadata: The Basics

One of the most challenging aspects of archiving information is knowing how to enter the metadata used in large online library collections. Metadata is difficult to understand because it is written in a complicated manner and used for many functions by databases. In this blog post, I will answer three main questions. First, what is metadata? Second, why do we need metadata? And finally, how do we make metadata? This post will specifically address the expectations for metadata and archiving used by CONTENTdm.

So, what is metadata? Metadata is data about data. Essentially, metadata is information that describes an information package such as a video or an audio recording. Metadata is used by the search function on Google to find interviews, or more specifically interviews about women in WWII. This is a simple version of metadata usage but more complex metadata (e.g. metadata about compression rates) is used in the complex algorithm of search features all over the internet. Metadata about WWII is categorized differently than that of compression rates. There are six main types of metadata: descriptive, administrative, structural, technical, security, and preservation. Each type serves a specific purpose for curators and researchers.

What are these purposes and why is metadata important? Metadata serves three main functions. It allows curators to organize information, helps people access the information in an archive with ease, and validates information as credible. The descriptive and structural metadata identify the information packages and show how they relate to other packages with similar descriptions. This helps both curators and researchers to find information in an archive about a specific topic. The technical information can also help researchers/curators to find a specific file with a specific format or software footprint. Administrative and security can validate the package because they show who owns the package and how difficult it is to edit or corrupt the information. Finally, preservation metadata allows curators to protect the physical copies of metadata and locate them at any time.

How can we create metadata? Most metadata is created while the interview is being recorded. This information, like format and bit rate, are embedded in the files. Additional metadata, such as descriptive metadata, can be written into files using software like that on CONTENTdm. Metadata is written into files using extensible markup language, or XML. There are different systems used for writing XML. CONTENTdm uses the Dublin Core system, which can be created by following the chart linked here.

This system might extremely complicated but it is essentially the same as creating a bibliography. There are different styles of citation like Chicago and MLA. Dublin Core is a system for writing metadata and the chart linked above is the Bedford Handbook.

It may not be absolutely necessary to understand all of this information about metadata but it is useful information none the less as metadata becomes increasingly prevalent in the professional world. Metadata is used to organize everything on the internet so understanding the basics of metadata is an ever more important aspect of technological literacy in the professional world.

Technology Problems Addressed

As technology advances, the recording of oral histories has changed as well. While oral history is one of the most ancient forms of collecting information, the digital age has revolutionized the process of collecting and archiving oral histories. With the utilization of the internet, oral histories are now more available for dissemination than ever before. However, ease of access does not come without new challenges. Many of the best practices are “moving targets” as Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, says in his video about oral history in the digital age. For example, although television quality video is shot at 720 pixels, all computer screens are now operating on 1080 pixels, so a 720p video will look blurry even to a nine year old laptop. Essentially, as technology improves, audio and video quality improve, which means the expectations for audio and video are higher than ever. This blog post will address all of the technological components necessary for our project. Additionally, each suggestion aims to achieve the high standard set by the best practices created by Oral History in the Digital Age.

As I mentioned above, professional video is shot at 1080 pixels and should not shake, zoom in or out, or pan from side to side frequently. Therefore, a tripod is absolutely necessary for all interview videos as is a professional quality camera (Canon Vixia HF R21). Shooting quality video is about more than pixels though. Videographers should keep in mind three main things. First, make sure the lighting does not create dark shadows on the interviewee’s face. Second, check that the background does not have any reflective surfaces or bright (daylight) points. Last, remember to frame your shot so that the interviewee is not too small or large in the frame and to add interest, do not always seat your interviewee in the center of the frame. In other words, remember the rule of thirds.

Audio is the one aspect of the videos that requires special attention. Audio quality really makes or breaks a video and it is one of the most difficult things to get right. Monitoring audio levels is the most important thing to remember when recording audio. The highest level of audio a microphone will record is called the peak and the lowest is the floor. Audio should be recorded as close to the peak as possible without hitting it. When volume levels hit the peak, it is called clipping and it can damage audio recordings. For interview situations, Boyd suggests that peak levels should be set between -12 decibels and -6 decibels. While many cameras come with a microphone attached, an external mic, preferably a lavalier mic, should be used for quality sound. For our project, because it does involve interviews, we should use a stereo mic because it records left and right separately and adds more depth to the recording. For internet uploading, we should create compressed files that have a 16 bit depth minimum. (More details on this can be found in the notes.)

Of course, not all of our interviews will be conducted in person. It is possible to record interviews over Facetime or Skype using Quicktime to record the screen, however this will result in poor audio and video quality so interviews should be conducted in person as much as possible.

Finally, and probably most important, data should be backed up and saved not only on the hard drive of a computer but on an external hard drive (a terabyte hard drive will probably be necessary) and on DVD’s as well. While many videos and essays have been created to address the issue of file form and video size, every digital camera I have listed in the notes will create standard file forms that will be appropriate for data storage as well as internet use.

The thing to keep in mind about all of the technological aspects is that it seems easy but there are always complications that arise. It is important to practice using the equipment before the actual interview and to understand all of our options for recording. Most of the equipment available to us at Denison will provide us with professional, lasting video if we make sure to practice with it and take our time setting it up to get the best quality videos we can. The majority of the time it will not be necessary to understand decibel levels, bit rates, fps, technical jargon etc. but should a complication arise, I have included that information here, simply as a reference point. For those more specific details, see the notes.

How to Conduct a Successful Interview

When you Google “how to conduct an interview”, a thousand lists of Dos and Don’ts shows up and it can seem overwhelming. How am I supposed to keep track of a camera, a microphone, asking the right questions, making sure my interviewee isn’t fatigued, pointing out contradictions, and eighty other things? It’s impossible to do all of that juggling, so for this blog post I simplified the compiled list of notes I took into two main ideas. As an interviewer, you have two jobs: first, be interested in the person you are interviewing; second, remember you have an audience. If you manage to do those two things, almost every thing that could go wrong will take care of itself.

If you are interested in the person you are interviewing, you will be courteous to your interviewee. This means you will ask deeper questions, maintain eye contact, and notice when your interviewee is fatigued. It’s important to review these kinds of tips before interviewing someone so they are in the back of your mind but it is not necessary to think about every one of these bullet points while interviewing someone. If you do, you won’t be able to concentrate on the interviewee’s story anyway. Even if everything in an interviewer goes wrong, as long as you are polite, professional, and interested, you can always ask follow up questions later.

Second, remember the interview is being conducted so that other people can view it later. Other people are not interested in the interviewer’s story, that’s why they decided to watch an interview about the interviewee. So as an interviewer, remember that it isn’t about you. The audience does not care about your value judgments or commentary. Your job as an interviewer is to put the interviewer in the spotlight. Furthermore, if you remember you have an audience, you will remember to clarify details that may not be clear to people who have not attended Denison or are not English majors and you will remember to check the video equipment as that is obviously necessary for an audience to watch the interview later. Basically, try to conduct an interview that you would like to watch.

Finally, never underestimate the usefulness of practice and preparation. The two ideas I listed above are helpful but nothing beats practice. I know that as a group we will come up with interview questions and will do practice interviews with others, so by the time the Alumni weekend comes we will be ready to conduct professional interviews. In the notes I have included a long list of Dos and Don’ts organized chronologically from the before an interview to after it is completed.

What does ‘oral history’ mean for our project?

As articulated in Lynn Abrams’s Oral History Theory, oral history is a creative, methodological tool of research that involves analyzing “not just what is said, but also how it is said, why it is said and what it means” (1). As a three-way conversation between the interviewee, researcher, and the culture introduced by their shared intersubjectivity, the practice of oral history refers to information and stories shared, in addition to the larger meanings created by interviewees through reconstructions of experience.

While I was reading Abrams’s book, I noticed that the Literature & Professional
Life project is unique from traditional oral history frameworks. While the archive project absolutely relies on reconstructions and reflections of the past, our research is deeply invested in the present. The project primarily seeks to understand the “prism of the present” (Abrams 7) as a product of past experiences and encounters with English. It is this exciting departure from most oral histories that I will explore further by reviewing Digital Oral History and Charlton et al.’s Handbook of Oral History.


Abrams, Lynn. Oral History Theory. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.