Friday, November 24, 2006

Interviewing Nano, Pt. One

I just received the first set of final edits for an oral history I did back in June. The interview was with Tom Kalil (former Clinton administration staff member and one of the advocates of the NNI back in the late 1990s). He is now at UC-Berkeley working on several tech initiatives; he's also on or National Advisory Board.

Anyway, I thought this might be a good time to talk a little about my interview protocols and how they might differ from what other CNS folks are doing. It also might help explain why it takes so long to get an oral history interview "done."

The process I use is thus:

1. Prepare for the interview. I tend to follow a general set of questions and am primarily interested in eliciting people's recollections about events, their memories, and so forth. I usually work from a person's CV and follow a somewhat biographical approach. A general rule of thumb is that, for about every hour of interview time, roughly 2-3 hours of preparation goes into setting out questions and doing background research on your subject. Nothing is worse than showing up to interview someone and realizing you haven't taken the time to learn the basics of their research or career. It wastes time and is unprofessional. Also, at the beginning of the interview, I explain the process and what is involved. I find it useful, especially when dealing with people who have been interviewed by reporters, to explain that historians work differently and have differing professional practices than journalists. I often find it useful to make this explicit by pointing out that nothing they say can be used by me without their permission, etc..

2. Conduct the interview. More on this some other time. Once the interview is done - Kalil's lasted about 2 hours - the interview is transcribed. Mary Ingram did this one; other interviews I did are transcribed by the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.

3. Once I have the transcript, I listen to the interview again and read the transcript simultaneously. This is my chance to correct major mistakes, correct spelling of tech terms, etc..

4. The interview then goes to the interviewee to review. This is often a major bottleneck as interviewees are busy and don't often have time to edit the transcript. Kalil, happily, turned his transcript around quickly. But this is their chance to add more detail, correct errors, etc.. It is also a chance for them to note any passages they deem controversial and want sealed. They can stipulate these terms in their consent form.

5. I receive the edited transcript and read over it once more. I also request that the interviewee sign a consent form giving permission to use the interview for scholarly purposes, etc.. Without a proper consent form or some written agreement as to use of the interview, the oral history is worthless except for background information. Verbal assent is OK as a temporary measure but should be followed up with a written form.

6. At this point, I consider the interview essentially done. I send a copy of the final transcript to the interviewee for their files; they keep a copy of signed consent form as well. It is only at this point - unless I've made some other interim arrangement - that the interview can be used for research purposes. Hopefully, the interview will go to a formal scholarly repository where it will be available for others to use. I am sending copies of mine to AIP; Cyrus Mody (one of my collaborators) has a similar arrangement with the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Few things are more frustrating than knowing that someone did some fabulous interviews for their own book etc. but that they were never transcribed, cannot be consulted, and in essence aren't available for others to use. This is akin to having a private stash of historically relevant documents that others cannot use to confirm or refute any points made with them.

It's a lengthy process. Thus far, for CNS, I've interviewed about 8 people. All of these are in various stages of completion. As interviews are done, we'll post them on the CNS web site and they are, according to the terms of the consent form, available for general use provided people follow the guidelines and rules set out at the beginning of the transcript.

At a later time - I'll talk some about preparing a good and cogent set of interview questions.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for laying this out, Patrick. When are you going to tell us what Tom said???