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Oral History --Oral History Primer

A 'Do-It-Yourself, Oral History Primer
by Benis M. Frank

History and Museums Division Headquarters, United States Marine Corps Washington, D.C., 20374. 1982 Reprint 1985, 1996


The purpose of this manual is to provide a guide for those individuals who would like to conduct an interview of themselves or others for the Marine Corps Oral History Program. What is Oral History? Simply stated, it is nothing more nor less than spoken history, a tape-recorded dialogue between an interviewer-normally an historian or an individual employing the methodology of historical inquiry combined with journalistic techniques-and an interviewee who has some knowledge, experience, or expertise to relate for the record. In the case of an individual taping his own history, 'it is a monologue rather than a dialogue. Essentially, then, an oral history interview consists of three elements (two, if an individual is recording his own reminiscences):

1. Someone who has something of historical value to impart for the record.

2. An interviewer.

3. A tape recorder.

The Marine Corps Oral History Program itself was originally constituted in 1965 as the Historical Interview Program for Vietnam Returnees. The following year its name was changed to what it is now and its mission changed and expanded. The objectives of this program are to obtain personal narratives concerning noteworthy professional experiences and observations from regular, reserve, and retired Marines; to encourage Marines to participate in a program in which they would be interviewed concerning their professional experience(s) and significant events in which they were involved; to preserve at Headquarters Marine Corps for future use as source material in the writing of official Marine Corps histories, both the tapes and the subsequent transcripts of interviews of historical importance; and to make available to researchers and writers a body of oral history as a research collection.

While the majority of the interviews with individual Marines are conducted by the Oral History Section, the inability of History and Museums Division personnel to get to and interview all potential interviewees who have something worthwhile to record for posterity has made it necessary to establish an outreach program in which members of the Marine Corps Historical Foundation and others interested in Marine Corps history are given the opportunity to assist the historical program. This guide, then, is written for these individuals in the anticipation that it will aid them in the conduct of meaningful and valuable interviews for the Marine Corps Oral History Program.

E. H. Simmons, Brigadier General, USMC (Ret)

Director of Marine Corps History and Museums

1. Equipment

While the Marine Corps Oral History Program has used a number of different types of tape recorders since its inception, experience has dictated the use of a high-quality, lightweight, portable cassette recorder which operates on both battery and AC power. It is preferable to use AC power whenever possible, however. These machines invariably have built-in microphones, and can be used to obtain interviews with good recorded sound quality. To prevent the appearance of outside noises on the tape and to guarantee recordings of good fidelity, the Oral History Section uses lapel microphones, but they are not necessary if the interview is conducted in a place away from such disturbances as the sound of power mowers, air conditioners, barking dogs, ringing telephones, as well as third parties who insist on inserting themselves into the interviews. Actually, the intrusion of the latter is not always a bad thing, since they very often are able to pique the memory of the interviewees or provide additional information about individual matters, such as names and dates. Cassette tapes come in a variety of playing times- 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes (15, 30, 45, or 60 minutes per side). We use only high quality cassettes, and having found the C-90 tapes to be most satisfactory, these are the ones we use. The History and Museums Division will provide an adequate supply of tapes to individuals conducting interviews for the Oral History Program. In order to avoid re-recording on a completed tape once both sides have been recorded on, punch in the two tabs at the top of the cassette with either a penknife, small screwdriver, or ball-point pen. This prevents the recording head from making contact with the tape.

II. Preparing for the Interview

A. Who Should Be Interviewed?

Having decided to participate in the Marine Corps Oral History Program, the question next arising is whom to interview. The focus of choice is limited by the fact that the Marine Corps Oral History Program is primarily and simply concerned with Marine Corps history. Therefore, its interviews are mainly with those individuals who have something to contribute to the Marine Corps historical record.

The first step in narrowing down the choices of interviewees is to identify those people most likely to provide the most and best information concerning their roles in events of Marine Corps historical import. Thus, the spectrum of the Marine Corps Oral History Collection covers interviews with Marines who served in the Spanish-American War as well as those who fought in Vietnam. To paraphrase William W. Moss' Oral History Program Manual (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), there are four groups from whom potential interviewees may come. You may know of some former or retired Marine who fits in one of these categories, or are in one yourself:

Group 1: People without whose oral history interviews the historical record would be glaringly deficient, even to the casual observer; people who interviewers should make every effort to interview extensively.

Group 2: People whose interviews would make unique and significant but rather specialized contributions to the historical record, whose interviews would be welcomed by more specialized and more advanced scholars; people who should be interviewed in the interests of creating a truly useful and comprehensive collection. People who may have been prominent briefly but critically in selected events fit into this category.

Group 3: People who would make marginal but interesting contributions of rather narrow but perhaps crucial significance to a particular aspect of Marine Corps history; people who should be interviewed if the opportunity arises.

Group 4: People who may be suggested as potential interviewees, but whose contributory value is probably low or unknown, who may be interviewed if they volunteer and if time and resources permit, but who should not necessarily be sought out.

B. Preliminary Steps.

An interviewer should be adequately prepared for his interview. He should know as much as possible about the person he is to interview, about his period of active Marine Corps service, as well as the events in which the interviewee was involved. The History and Museums Division can help you with your interview preparation by providing you with a biography of the interviewee as well as a chronological listing of his duty assignments. The division can also provide direction into the areas which should be explored with the prospective interviewee.

With respect to those individuals who opt to tape themselves, the same services can be provided. If it is truly a "do-it-yourself" interview, it is recommended that the interviewee prepare an interview guide and perhaps some questions, utilizing them as guides on which the interview can be structured.

It is perfectly acceptable for an interviewer and an interviewee to get together for a pre-interview conference to discuss the parameters of the upcoming interview. However, the interviewer should be cautioned to not let the discussion get out of hand to the extent that the whole interview is held before the tape recorder is turned on, and spontaneity is lost. Before conducting the interview, the interviewer should become familiar with the operation of the tape recorder in order to be perfectly at case with it. A good interview can be ruined by an interviewer who is nervous and ill at case with machines, for this nervousness can be transmitted to the interviewee, distracting him and disrupting his train of thought, causing him to concentrate on the operation of the recorder rather than on the interview. Do not turn the recorder off and on. Start it and forget about it. Watch your time, however, and turn the tape over when, if it is near the end on one side, the conversation lags. This is better than interrupting an interviewee's flow of thought as a tape runs out. It is better to waste a little tape than interrupt a good interview. A potentially good interview can also be ruined by having it conducted by an interviewer who is unfamiliar, or less than familiar, with the interview subject and topical areas to be discussed. One should be certain that there are fresh batteries in the tape recorder if it is to be operated on battery power. A supply of fresh batteries should be brought to the interview together with other needed equipment. Ensure that you have an adequate supply of cassettes since a potentially good interview can be ended before its time by running out of cassettes before the interviewee runs out of reminiscences. If you are going to use the recorder on AC power, always take along an extension cord in case the interviewee does not have one. Always have a pad and pencil available to make note of items you might want to discuss with the interviewee at an appropriate break in the interview, as well as for the purpose of keeping a running glossary which should be turned in with the tapes. The glossary will assist the transcriber in spelling proper and place names as well as terms peculiar to the Marine Corps and the military.

III. Conducting the Interview

The interview should be conducted in a secluded, quiet place away from noises and diversions. The most propitious time for interviewing is in the morning. If, however, the interview is held in the afternoon, and especially after lunch, the interviewer is cautioned to eat lightly and drink sparingly, if at all. There is nothing more embarrassing than for an interviewer to find his eyelids growing very heavy and beginning to close. Nothing spoils an interview or ends it more quickly than to have the interviewer fall asleep in the middle of it. Also, during lunch, try to keep the conversation away from a discussion of interview topics, or else you may discover you have conducted an interview without benefit of a tape recorder.

An interview can be open-ended and there really is no rule of thumb for how long an interview or an interview session should be. It is just a matter of being sensitive to the interviewee's limits and being aware of that point in an interview where the law of diminishing returns takes over. An interview in depth about an individual's total career can go on for a number of sessions, especially if that career has been a full, rewarding, interesting, and successful one. On the other hand, an interview about a single incident or event can be rather short. In any case, good judgment should prevail, and the interviewer should ensure that the whole story is told, whether a full career or one event is being recounted.

There comes a time when the interviewer and the interviewee must mutually recognize that the subject has been profitably exhausted and that the interview must come to an end. This presents no problem. However, there are times when the interviewee does not want to let go and then the interviewer must take charge and gracefully close the interview. At this time, courtesy and good manners will govern. The reverse situation can occur, but should not. One elderly interviewee always signaled the end of a session by announcing it was time for the interviewer's beer ration. And so it was.

Following are some suggestions to interviewers. They do not cover the entire realm of do's and don'ts, but they are a beginning:

1. Do not insert yourself in the interview except in the role of an interrogator.

2. Do not ask those types of leading questions which will evoke answers of merely "yes" and "no."

3. Be totally objective and unmoved or neutral in response to what you are being told, no matter how scandalous, revealing, intriguing, or disgusting. Do not nod your head in assent to what is being said or keep interjecting "uh-huhs" in agreement.

4. Interrupt only at appropriate pauses in the interviewee's narration and ask the appropriate questions at that time.

5. Follow up on tangential matters of worth by asking questions when it appears that it would be profitable to do so.

6. At the appropriate time, ask those questions which you feel should be asked to augment or clarify the historical record; questions, the answers to which you personally would like to know.

7. Do not be afraid to ask questions when you do not understand what the interviewee is saying, or when you feel that he is being less than open about a matter which should be more fully clarified or explored in depth.

8. As Moss says, "An interviewer should intuitively use a good mix of questions. Open-ended questions are good for opening a subject area or for eliciting reflective and interpretive answers. . . . Sometimes there should be some preliminary questions that set the stage for difficult areas, so as to lead up gradually to what one hopes will be candor."

9. The interviewer, in addition to seeking facts, should attempt to elicit from the interviewee names of places and persons, dates, etc., and if in doubt, get the interviewee to spell out names.

10. The mind can play tricks and memories are not always infallible, so it behooves a good interviewer to correct an interviewee politely if he has a name or the facts wrong. This can be done diplomatically, as, "Don't you mean."

11. At all times, an interviewer is seeking truth and candor from an interviewee, especially when he is dealing with sensitive matters. We would like to have our oral history collection to be more than a repository of tired old Marines' axes to grind, and we encourage the inclusion on tape of vignettes, anecdotes, personality sketches, humor in addition to a narration of the interviewee's career.

12. Whenever possible, attempt to augment the oral history interview with whatever papers of photographs of artifacts the interviewee may have. Either barrow them for copying by the History and Museums Division or attempt to have the interviewee donate them to the division's collections. In the case of photographs, make certain that they are captioned and all personalities in the photo and its location and date are identified. If this is not possible, mark the back of the photo somehow to identify it and then have the interviewee identify the subject(s) of the photo on tape while you are conducting the interview.

13. Ask only one question at a time. A long series of questions will not only confuse the interviewee, but also will result in perhaps only the first and last question being answered. Keep the questions short and clear-cut to enable the inter-viewee to slide effortlessly into his reminiscences.

14. Begin each interview with the following on tape:

"This is Side 1, Tape 1, of Session (number), of an interview with (name), which is being conducted on (date) at (place of interview). The interviewer is (name)."

15. Mark each cassette box and each cassette label clearly with the name of the interviewee, the date and place of the interview, and, if more than one tape is used per session, write "Tape 1 of (total number)" on the box and label.

Subsequent tapes and tape sides should similarly be identified, otherwise great confusion will arise during the transcribing process in trying to sort out tapes and sessions. Always remember to punch out the tabs on top of the cassettes once the tape is recorded on both sides.

For record-keeping purposes, each interview submitted for the Marine Corps Oral History Collection should be accompanied by a documentation sheet or a 5 x 8 card an is noted the following information:

1. Name of interviewee

2. Name of interviewer

3. Place and date(s) of interview

4. An abstract or synopsis of the interview commenting on the highlights of the interview.

In the course of the interview, the interviewee may mention the names of other individuals who should be interviewed. This information should be noted in the abstract.

IV. Restrictions

Because Marine Corps Oral History Program interviews deal with individuals' careers, personalities, and events in which major decisions affecting men's lives are concerned, it is quite possible that material of a sensitive nature may be discussed. A basic ethic of the Marine Corps program, as it is of all oral history projects, is to hold inviolate the confidences expressed by interviewees under whatever restrictions they might impose. However, like other programs, the Marine Corps' has two primary objectives which are often in conflict.

One objective is to obtain and preserve interviews often containing candid and confidential material not normally available in other sources or accessible to the public about the lives and careers of Marines. The second obligation of an oral history project is to make its interviews available to the general public for research as soon as possible.

While the Marine Corps Oral History Collection maintains restrictions on the use of interviews whenever they have been imposed by interviewees, it is neither the policy nor the desire of the History and Museums Division to have an oral history collection whose use is almost totally constrained by restrictions. For that reason, the division would almost rather not have an interview in the collection if it is so restricted as to make it inaccessible. Balance and good judgement governing imposition of restrictions must prevail on the part of interviewees.

The nature of the material in an interview is such that the interviewee insists that its availability must be limited, the History and Museums Division will uphold his imposed restrictions to the utmost. However, the division would rather have a totally open collection, available for use by all who visit the Marine Corps Historical Center.

V. Processing the Interview

When the interview is completed, send the tapes, glossary, and documenta-tion sheet to:

Place here the designated address for processing.

Self-addressed, franked labels will be provided interviewers at the same time they are sent tapes. Make certain that the outside of the mailing envelope is always clearly marked Recorded Materials, Do Not X-Ray.

The majority of completed interviews will be accessioned in taped form. A number will, at some time after the interview, be transcribed, proofed, and a copy of the transcript returned to the interviewee for his editing, correcting, and so forth. When the emended transcript is received in the Historical Center, the master copy will be corrected, and a clean, bound copy of the transcript provided the interviewee, while other copies will be accessioned into the Marine Corps Oral History Collection and by the Marine Corps Research Center, Quantico, Virginia. At that point, the interviewee as well as interviewer should have the satisfaction of knowing that he has performed yet another service for his Corps.

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