Toolkit for 'Making Invisible Histories Visible'

Conducting an interview is an important part of many kinds of projects. Along with research, an interview can be a valuable source of information. It also provides you with a rewarding chance to interact with a person you might not otherwise get to know. Based on the advice of historians and documentary filmmakers, here is a suggested guide to preparing for, conducting and following up after an interview:

  • Politely ask your subject for an interview. Make sure he or she knows the purpose of your interview, who will hear or see it, and how it will be used.
  • Gather and test any equipment you may need, such as voice or video recorders. Be sure you’re comfortable using them. You may also want to use a digital camera to take still photos of your subject.
  • Draft a list of questions you want to ask and/or topics you want to cover. Be sure that your questions help accomplish your project’s goal.
  • Conduct your interview in a quiet place where your subject is comfortable, such as his home. Take a few minutes before your interview to remove any distractions.
  • Start your recording with some basic information, such as whom, when and where you’re recording.
  • Start with simple questions and work up to more complex questions or controversial topics.
  • Ask open-ended questions, rather than those that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” You’ll get more—and maybe more unexpected—information.
  • Listen actively to the answers. This will allow you to ask important follow-up questions.
  • After you’ve finished your own questions, ask if there is anything else your subject wants people to know. This will give him a chance to share memories, anecdotes or information that wasn’t covered and can add to your project.
  • If you borrow any photos or other artifacts, make copies and label them. Return the originals promptly.
  • If your school or district requires a release form, have your subject sign one before you leave.
  • Write a thank-you note.
  • Share the results of your project, and let your subject know that he was an important part of it.