Preliminary Interviews

For some kinds of oral history interviews preliminary meetings are unnecessary and can prove to be a positive disadvantage by taking the initiative from the interviewer. In recording well known politicians, for example, the historian is in any case generally able to find from written sources sufficient information about the informant's life and career to identify in advance of an interview the relevant and worthwhile subjects for discussion. The case of most informants from working class backgrounds is significantly different. Here the main and sometimes only source about the research field and the particular individual's place within it, is oral. Thus there are usually few points of reference apart from the informant's memory from which the interviewer can satisfactorily prepare himself. So, for the purpose of structuring the interview in a way which will obtain the most valid and valuable contribution each person can make, a preliminary interview is generally useful in providing the basis for successful subsequent recording sessions. The processes of research interviewing and recording methods are also sufficiently novel to unsophisticated informants that their introduction to them in a gradual fashion is a prudent and beneficial course.

The preliminary interview, therefore, has four main purposes:

  1. To enable the interviewer and informant to get to know each other and thereby create the appropriate atmosphere for a relaxed and trusting dialogue.
  2. To give the interviewer insight into the personality of the informant so that he can adjust his approach the questions he asks and the way he puts them to the individual needs of each informant.
  3. To provide the interviewer with adequate factual information about the informant's background and experiences so that he can structure the recorded interview in a sensible, well informed and appropriate way.
  4. To enable the interviewer to decide whether the potential informant is worth recording or not. Contributors should not be discarded lightly: but there is no point in pecording them unless they have useful information to give and are reasonably well able to articulate it.

If the preliminary interview has been conducted with care the subsequent recording sessions will have a real sense of purpose and direction.

Some oral historians regard preliminary interviews as anathema and most commonly argue that they rob the subsequent recordings of much of their spontaneity. It has to be acknowledged that sometimes the first account of a particular event is the best one. But the spontaneity of the overall interview is not significantly reduced provided the first recording session does not follow too closely on the preliminary meeting (a gap of between one and two weeks seems to work best). If the loss of freshness in a small proportion of the recording is a regrettable price which sometimes has to be paid, there are clear compensating advantages from preliminary interviews which can be identified. The opportunity they provide to reflect on and study the range and detail of possible questioning, can result in many questions being put which might not have occurred to the interviewer in the heat of a recording session which was not so prepared. It can be argued that follow-up interviews serve the same purpose; but they do so only at the expense of producing a very disjointed recording in which related parts need to be subsequently brought together either by editing or more elaborate cataloguing.

Generally, the degree of useful information in a recording is in direct proportion to the amount of interview preparation that has been carried out. Preparation which is also related to a prior appraisal of the informant's capabilities will usually result in recordings of greatest substance and economy. An undisciplined interview, on the other hand, will produce recordings and transcripts which are difficult and time consuming to organise or use as well as being extremely expensive products. A heavy cost may have to be paid in cataloguing and transcribing for that first spontaneity which too easily deteriorates into superficial meanderings.