The Grand Generation
The Equipment

The first step in conducting an interview is to consider the equipment you will need. Tape recording and note-taking are the most common means of recording folklore and oral history. In most situations, tape recording is preferable, as it allows you to capture your narrator's stories and experiences completely and accurately, as well as make a lasting record of his or her voice - the inflections, tone, pauses, and other subtleties. Extensive note-taking, especially during a lengthy interviewing session, makes it difficult to maintain eye contact and participate in conversation.

At first, the people you interview (sometimes called informants) might feel a little uncomfortable with a tape recorder, but after the interview gets going they'll forget that it is even there. Always keep a pen and paper with you during a tape-recorded interview, so you can note important points or jot down follow-up questions that come to mind while your informant is speaking. At the end of the interview, immediately label the tapes and your notes with the date, place, informant's name, your name (as the interviewer), and any brief thematic information that might be helpful.

An inexpensive, small cassette tape recorder with either a built-in or separate omni-directional microphone will do just fine. They are easy to operate and unobtrusive. Use either 60- or 90-minute cassettes, and always bring more blank tapes with you to an interview than you think you will need, so that you don't get caught short. It's also a good idea to have spare batteries, if your recorder isn't the plug-in type.

Practice using the tape recorder before your interview, so that you are familiar with how it functions. If you are at ease with your equipment, it will help to put your informant at ease, too.

Place the tape recorder within easy reach so that you can change tapes and adjust the controls when necessary, and position the microphone so that you can clearly record both your informant's voice and your own. Try to eliminate any loud background noises, such as the radio or television, that could interfere with the taping. Always run a test before you begin an interview. Tape about a minute of conversation and then play it back to make sure you are recording properly. A good procedure is to state your name, your informant's name, and the date and topic of the interview. This serves both to test the equipment and to orally "label" each tape. When you are confident that all your equipment is in good working order, you are ready to begin.

Another useful piece of equipment is a camera. It allows you to capture a visual record of the interview and is especially valuable if you are documenting a process, such as your grandmother making her famed apple strudel or an elderly neighbor crafting a split-oak basket. A camera, with the addition of a close-up attachment, can be used to copy old family photographs and other documentary materials, such as letters, birth records, and scrapbooks. For detailed descriptions of home copying methods see Shoots: A Guide to Your Family's Photographic Heritage by Thomas L. Davies and My Backyard History Book by David Weitzman (both listed in "For Further Reading").

You may also want to use a video camera to visually record grandfather recounting his life story or to capture a special family or community event, such as a family reunion, Passover seder; Christmas dinner, or neighborhood festival. One young woman went with her grandmother to visit the old family homestead and videotaped her as she walked around the farm, reminiscing about her childhood days.

Video equipment can be rented or borrowed and is easy to set up and use.