Researching and Replying: Preparing to Conduct Oral Histories

Before I return to Williamsburg to begin conducting oral histories, I am doing secondary source research and contacting a lot of different people in order to be fully prepared to jump in when I return to William & Mary in July.

The research I am conducting right now is focused on formally preparing for conducting oral histories and looking at different methodologies. While I do have experience in interviewing people for oral histories, I am attempting to more academically prepare for conducting the interviews. One book that has been incredibly helpful is Donald A. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide, which I have poured over at various coffee shops that have unfortunately left their marks on many pages. Set up in a Q&A format, this book covers everything from the preparation, to the interviews, to presentations on findings. It has given me excellent and very specific advice on conducting oral histories, such as bringing up more controversial topics later in the interview after the interviewer and interviewee have developed a rapport (Ritchie, 97) and what you should include in the official file for an oral history (Ritchie, 61). This type of research can be very nuanced, because it involves developing even a surface-level relationship with a person, so this book’s specific hints and tips for interacting with individuals during the interviews have helped me feel much more prepared to get the most out of the interview. This book has also made me re-think previous mistakes that I made in oral histories I have conducted. The book includes examples from prominent interviews in which things went well and did not go well, which gives me a good real-life perspective. Additionally, the book goes into the difference between an oral history and an non-historical interview, which has taught me to question and to dig deeper during my oral histories to uncover truths that may not be easily found from a more superficial interview.

Another book that I have been utilizing is Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History, which is a compilation of many different interviews with commentary by the interviewer. Though I am still only at the beginning of this fascinating book, I have learned about the importance of oral histories for individuals in the queer community. Oral histories and storytelling allow marginalized and previously silenced voices to be heard,where may of those with the privilege of having their voices and opinions written and archived have dominated the historical record (Ramírez and Boyd, 4). In addition, queer oral histories allow for a mode of data collection that includes more nuanced expressions of desire and sexuality, which reveal a much deeper view into the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals (Ramírez and Boyd, 8). Because of its ability to transcend more rigid prescriptions associated with the written record, in a way oral history can be seen as a queer mode of history itself that questions and subverts historical norms.

Further research that I would like to do before I interview people is to look into the history of LGBTQ+ individuals and issues affecting LGBTQ+ individuals at William & Mary in the 1970s and 1980s, in order to give me a better historical context for my interviews and to inform my follow-up questions. I will likely utilize some of the resources found through W&M’s LGBTIQ History Project, along with others.

In tandem with my secondary research, I have been contacting a host of people to help me set up interviews. I have been in contact with Prof. Leisa Meyer, who is my faculty contact for this project, about making sure the correct IRB (Institutional Review Board) forms are in order, planning transcriptions, and more. Also, I have talked to Kim Sims and Carmen Bolt of Special Collections about getting the interviews stored in Swem’s Archives for future researchers to access (we plan to meet up when I get to Williamsburg). I have been emailing back and forth with Jack Edgar, who works in Alumni Engagement in Washington, D.C., who has been helpful in putting me in contact with potential interviewees. Furthermore, Dan Delmonaco, the Summer 2016 fellow for the LGBTIQ History Project, has also been immensely helpful in providing me a list of contacts and other documents he had from last summer.

I am so far learning about the grand amount of preparation that is required to conduct proper and productive interviews, so I look forward to when I can finally start them.

Here are the books I referenced in this post:

Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Boyd, Nan Alamilla and Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, eds. Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.