Operation ICFA Oral History Initiative: A Case Not To Be Closed

by Caitlin Ballotta, August 8, 2014

The tools of the oral historian. Not pictured:  magnifying glass and trench coat.

The tools of the oral historian. Not pictured: magnifying glass and trench coat.

When last she wrote nearly one month ago, ICFA’s aspiring detective (that would be me) had just made contact with a few “key suspects”—that is to say, with several desired oral history interviewees—in possession of valuable information concerning ICFA’s image and document collections.  (For more on the pre-interview phase of Operation Oral History Initiative, please see my previous blog post, “A Not-So-Private Investigation: ICFA’s Oral History Project.”)  And now, with less than one week of my internship left to go and two formal interviews under my belt, I can proudly say that I have never felt more detective-like in my life.

Before you think me too crazy, I should state for the record that I am not claiming to be a real detective.  That job title I’ll leave for the professionals.  (And for Nancy Drew, my childhood idol.)  What I am saying, though, is that I have a newfound appreciation for what it is that detectives do—because what they do is very similar to what I (attempt to) do:  to get the whole story.  Think about it in this light:  getting to the bottom of things requires asking the right questions in just the right way, whether the questioner be sizing up suspects or collecting oral histories.  I would argue, in fact, that—although their respective interview tactics and the nature of their interactions with their interviewees may differ—both the detective and the oral historian are, in essence, collecting witnesses’ reports of events that have already transpired.  Both, then, are interviewers by trade who must be able to account for quirks of memory, to sense if (and why) interviewees are holding back, and to draw them out as necessary in order to “close the case.”  No small feat.

Practicing the interview process.

Practicing the interview process.  A very entertaining pastime.

Interviewing—or, better, conversational detective work—is not a job for the faint of heart.  Indeed, from the first moments of my initial “practice interview” (one of my supervisors, Rona, graciously played the part of Particularly Difficult Interviewee in order to test my skills as an oral historian), I quickly saw that the interviewee is not the only one in “the hot seat,” so to speak.[1]  The interviewer, too, must be ever on his or her toes. This requires becoming well-versed in the interviewee’s background so as to be prepared for anything that might arise over the course of an hour-and-a-half-long conversation.

Robert Van Nice, Jr., was interviewed by ICFA in October of 2012 about his father's (architect Robert Van Nice's) work at the Hagia Sophia.

Robert Van Nice, Jr., was interviewed by ICFA in October of 2012 about his father’s (architect Robert Van Nice’s) survey work at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

Yet preparedness is not enough.  Try as the interviewer-to-be might to “script” his or her part of the interview by drafting a lengthy (read:  very, very lengthy) list of questions ahead of time, he or she cannot predict where the conversation will lead once the interviewee gets to talking.  For this reason, the oral historian must be quick on his or her feet—that is to say, an adept multi-tasker who is able to keep track of a whole host of things at once while simultaneously helping the interviewee to feel at ease by providing the appropriate verbal or visual cues.  Consider a brief (and not at all comprehensive) Interviewer’s To-Do List:

  • (1) Listen to the interviewee: Listening to and processing what the interviewee says is absolutely vital.  This may seem obvious, but listening—really listening—is easier said than done when there are so many other things on the interviewer’s mind.  For further explanation, read on…
  • (2) Determine which (if any) questions are being answered simultaneously: As I mentioned above, there is no fixed script, and an interview can go in any direction—or, quite often, in multiple directions—at any given moment.  Keeping track of the topics discussed by the interviewee is essential so as to avoid asking redundant questions.
  • (3) Come up with impromptu follow-up questions: At times, the interviewer will want to know more than what the interviewee has said of his or her own volition, and it is up to the interviewer to get the particulars.  On the other hand, a single response from the interviewee can on occasion render an entire series of prepared questions irrelevant, forcing him or her to devise new ones on the spot.  (Yes, I speak from experience.)
  • (4) Steer clear of interrogation tactics: By this, I mean that the interviewer sets the tone for the interview—both in terms of what he or she asks and how he or she asks it.  Because the oral historian wants an interview to have the easy flow of a conversation, rather than the more staccato rhythm of an interrogation, he or she should aim to insert logical transitions between the various thematic segments of the interview.
  • (5) Aim for variety: The best interviews incorporate a mixture of question types. Biographical or fact-based questions and name or place association questions are useful in that they help to “warm up” the interviewee and to set him or her at ease.  Indeed, these seemingly basic questions (which often elicit interesting and unexpected responses) are just as important as the “hard-hitting” ones—for instance, those comparing personal with broader (societal or institutional) reactions to past events or social dynamics. Finally, while oral histories call interviewees to reflect on the past, it is also worthwhile to ask the interviewee—a person who, like the interviewer, is an individual living in the present moment—about his or her vision for the future.
  • (6) Respect time constraints:  Sadly, an interview cannot continue indefinitely, and some questions will inevitably go unasked.  The clock is ticking as the camera is rolling, and it is the interviewer’s job to prioritize questions accordingly—and to strike a careful balance between the depth and breadth of the discussion.
I was able to interview Susan Boyd, who--in addition to serving as Curator of the Photograph Collection (ICFA)--participated in a number of fieldwork projects in Cyprus and in modern-day Macedonia (FYROM).

I was able to interview Susan Boyd, who served as Curator of the Photograph Collection (now ICFA) and who participated in a number of  Dumbarton Oaks-affiliated fieldwork projects.

While I am not a real detective, I do love a good mystery story (give me anything Agatha Christie)—or any good story, for that matter.  Perhaps that is why I’ve enjoyed my summer in ICFA so much:  I’ve had the chance to “read up on” an array of interesting people and then to hear their (oral his)stories as they tell them.  Beyond just reading or listening to their stories, though, I’ve also gotten to help in recording them—and even, to a certain extent, to help in shaping them.  As I see it, the oral historian is something like a co-author—or perhaps a ghostwriter—of an interviewee’s oral history.  Without doubt, the interviewee is the primary author (not to mention the protagonist) of his or her tale, but the interviewer, the question-asker, lends to that tale its particular narrative bent by encouraging the interviewee to focus on specific topics.

In just a few days, my part in ICFA’s Oral History Initiative will come to an end, but the project itself will continue after I go.  As long as there are more mysteries to solve—as long as there are more stories to collect—ICFA will have its work cut out for itself, and you, Dear Reader, will be able to follow along once the Oral History Initiative web page (which is currently in progress) launches.  And so, since I am not quite a detective, I can happily say the following:  case not closed.


 About Me:

I graduated from Harvard College in May with a degree in English.  I am deeply interested in the intersection of technology and education.  Thus, when my internship with ICFA ends, I will seek to work in the Digital Humanities field while applying to graduate programs in English.  My eventual aim is to teach at the university level and to aid in the development of online supplements for humanities education in primary and secondary school classrooms.


[1] That is not to say, of course, that our oral histories are at all confrontational.  On the contrary, our conversations are quite congenial.  What I mean to say is that the very nature of the interview process places both the interviewee and the interviewer on the spot.

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