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Special Collections & Archives: Share How COVID-19 Impacts You

Tips on writing down your own experiences and on interviewing others about theirs. How to donate your materials to the Archives.

Introduction

Navigating Uncertainty: Coronavirus 2020 Oral History Project

The William H. Berge Oral History Center's Navigating Uncertainty: Coronavirus 2020 Oral History Project seeks to capture the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic through a reflective oral history interviewing process. Participants are encouraged to share their experiences during the outbreak by conducting autobiographical or face-to-face interviews with family, friends and loved ones. Participants can still observe social distancing guidelines and stay safe by conducting phone or other safe interviewing methods, which can include web conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangouts Meet. To alleviate potential storage capacity concerns in the Berge Center, please record only the audio from a video meeting session rather than the combined audio and video. For those who are in close proximity to the person being interviewed, mobile recording applications such as the iOS Voice Memos or Android's Voice Recorder can be used. For complete details on how to donate your interviews to the Berge Center, or, if technology or oral history methods questions arise, please contact EKU's Oral Historian Neil Kasiak at 859-622-2820 or neil.kasiak@eku.edu.

Interview Question Development Resources

Below you will find a variety of resources that will prove useful for learning the craft of oral history interviewing. Each resource follows similar best standards and practices, though there are some slight variations when conducting folklife studies. Although there is not a single or perfect guide, there are “Dos and Don'ts” that should be followed. Following the stated rules and suggestions will help you become more comfortable with the process and result in high quality interviews. To hone your oral history skills, you are encouraged to compare and contrast these resources with other available online sources. Don’t hesitate in contacting EKU Oral Historian Neil Kasiak (859-622-2820 or neil.kasiak@eku.edu) if you have any questions or would like additional training or advice.

 

Potential Questions to Ask

The following list of questions will provide a good starting point for conducting a Navigating Uncertainty interview. The prepared list is by no means exhaustive and participants are encouraged to ask questions or cover topics that are unique to individual experiences. For instance, a healthcare worker will have a very different perspective than a construction worker, student, or teacher. The proposed questions will assist in exploring these varied experiences. Additionally, follow up questions to complement those listed below will provide additional context and help capture a more complete narrative.

  • Names, date of birth and place of birth?
  • Places of Education? Elementary, Middle, if applicable, high school?
  • Higher Education, Vocational or other professional trainings?
  • What were your circumstances prior to the Covid outbreak? Occupation? Circumstances with children, family, loved ones?
  • When did you first hear about or come to understand what Covid-19 was or the relative severity of the virus?
  • At what point did you come to understand the virus’s potential impacts on humans, society, economies, or day-to-day life?
  • Where did you receive your information about Covid-19?
  • How has your understanding of the virus or outbreak changed through time?
  • How has your daily life and activities been impacted by the current pandemic? Have any "silver linings" emerged while living through the pandemic?
  • Describe how you have been adapting to the changes so you can continue to do what you want, need, or are expected to do?
  • What are the major or most significant impacts on your day-to-day life, and why? Have the major impacts changed? 
  • Is there anything else you want to share about how living through the pandemic has disrupted your life?
  • Have you experienced any psychological or emotional impacts that you would like to share?
  • How have your relationships with family, friends, and loved ones changed? How have you adapted your relationships to maintain them?
  • When in public, what have you noticed about the ways that society has changed? How about the ways that individuals act or interact with each other?
  • What role has the media played in dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak? Do you think the media has played a negative or positive role, and why?
  • What are your thoughts on the ways that local, state and federal authorities have been dealing with the outbreak?
  • If you were King/Queen/Leader for a day, what would you do the same or different?
  • 100 years from now what would you tell someone who wanted to know what it was like to live through the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States? What about globally?
  • Where do you think we all go from here?
  • Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t covered, or would you like to revisit any topics we discussed?

Oral History Interviewing Tips

  1. Find a quiet public place with minimal distractions to conduct your interview.
  2. Always give preference to indoor interviewing spaces where you can effectively control background noises. Additionally, if radios, televisions, or other controllable background noise is present, respectfully ask your interviewee if you can turn them off.
  3. An oral history interview is not a dialogue. You are there to record someone else’s experiences, not to talk about yourself. Try to limit your own remarks to allow the interviewee to share their story with minimal interruptions.
  4. Ask questions which require more than a “yes” or “no” answer. Start questions with “why,” “how,” “where,” “what,” and “when.” Instead of asking, “Did you have any mentors during your early career?” ask, “Who were some of the mentors you had during your early career?”
  5. Ask one question at a time; the shorter, the better. Sometimes an interviewer asks a series of questions all at once. The interviewee usually ends up only answering the first or last question, and the information that would have been supplied in answering the other questions is lost.
  6. Start with easy biographical questions the interviewee is sure to know. Once you break the ice with questions they can easily answer and a good rapport is established, then you can ask more delicate questions.
  7. Don’t be bothered by periods of silence. We often naturally want to break periods of silence immediately. Give the interviewee an opportunity to add comments before you rush him or her off in another direction. Relax and jot down a few notes while your interviewee regroups. Silence and breaking eye contact often indicates deep thought so be patient and allow your interviewee to frequently gather their thoughts.
  8. Don’t worry if your questions are not as beautifully phrased as you would like. When you fumble somewhat with your questions, the interviewee realizes that you do not expect him or her to give perfectly composed responses. Try to be as natural as possible.
  9. Listen quietly and carefully and actively. Encourage the interviewee with an occasional smile or nod. Do not say things like “yes,” “uh-huh,” and “really” repeatedly--they may distract an interviewee or break their train of thought.
  10. Don’t interrupt a good story because the interviewee is straying from your planned outline. Be on your toes and remember that your list of questions is only a guide, not a rigid plan. Your assembled question list will assist in helping you return to your desired focus if the interview starts to head in an unexpected direction.
  11. Do not challenge accounts that you think are inaccurate. Instead, try to develop as much information as possible, which can be used by later researchers to establish what really did happen.
  12. Try to establish your interviewee’s role at important points in the story. Example: “So where were you during that time?” “At what point did you realize that your life was in danger?” This will establish how much of the narrative is based on eyewitness testimony and how much is based on secondhand information.
  13. Tactfully point out to your interviewee where his or her account differs from that of others. Start out by saying, “I have heard...” or “I have read...” This does not challenge the interviewee’s account, but rather suggests ways to clarify other stories already in existence. Often the best interview research material comes from an interviewee account that differs from other sources.
  14. Be sure to review the recording afterwards. Even the most experienced interviewer will spot missed opportunities or things he or she might have done differently. Use what you’ve learned to make your next interview that much better. When reviewing your interview, remember that there is no such thing as a perfect interview. Don’t be discouraged by awkward questions or repetition, or if your interviewee jumps from one topic to another. This is how people often recall things. Try to think of the taped interview as raw material or a primary source.

(The above helpful tips were adapted from a guide that was produced by the Minnesota Historical Society: see http://www.mnhs.org/collections/oralhistory/ohguidelines.pdf)

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