E-mail as a medium for “oral history”: a personal account
This essay details the author’s experience of conducting a personal history interview using e-mail rather than a traditional voice recording with transcript. This approach allowed for a rich narrative on the part of the interviewee, and simplified the process of collecting information from the hearing impaired. The article includes a discussion of the methods used, the benefits and drawbacks of this format, and the implications of digital interview transcripts both for participants and for repositories.
Conducting an oral history interview is an ideal way in which to record and preserve the story of one’s life. When circumstances prevent the interviewer from creating a recording of a face-to-face interview, what alternatives can we find to capture that story? In the case of my grandfather, Julian, who is hard of hearing and lives over 1,000 miles away from me, e-mail presented a possible solution. This paper offers an account of my experience conducting the interviews, discusses the benefits and drawbacks apparent in e-mail interviews, and argues that this method can expand researchers’ notions of what a ‘personal history narrative’ entails. It also seeks to situate this interview format within library collections.
This collection method may be of particular interest to library and information professionals looking for new ways to promote digital preservation, or for individuals engaged in library projects that involve conducting personal history interviews. It may also be of interest to those who are looking to incorporate new media into their interviewing techniques, or those who work with the hearing impaired. In traditional oral histories, the interviewer asks open-ended questions to assist the interviewee in providing an account of his or her life, resulting in a guided discussion that is recorded using either audio or audio/visual equipment, which the interviewer later makes into a transcript.
These oral history transcripts serve a vital function for researchers, who wish to extract information from an interview but require a more convenient way of accessing that material than they would find in listening to a recording. The e-mails between my grandfather and I resemble such transcripts, and while the benefits and challenges of the formats are different, the information can be used in an identical manner both to preserve the interviewee’s life story and to grant researchers access to that story in a way that is most useful to them.
My grandfather Julian is 83 years old, and resides in an assisted living facility in Florida. He has vivid memories of his experiences in the Korean War, his childhood during the Great Depression, and his work with the space program. I have always found his rich life to be inspiring, and felt his story was important to record not only for our family but also for future researchers looking for a first-hand narrative of these events.
I had several concerns about conducting a recorded oral history: Julian has difficulty concentrating on a conversation for long periods, and tends to become distracted or confused and jumps between subjects. He has difficulty hearing, especially with female voices. I also encountered barriers common to new oral historians, such as lack of recording equipment. While it is possible to record an interview using an inexpensive tape recorder (or even the built-in camera on a laptop), the audio may not be clear, causing parts of the interview to become lost. I do not own transcription software, nor do I have extra time to transcribe the recording. Finally, I do not have the time or money to fly very often, and thus conducting a face-to-face interview was not possible. Some interviewers may be able to bypass this by recording a phone conversation with the interviewee, but with Julian’s hearing trouble that was not a feasible option.
Since Julian spends a great deal of his day at the computer, e-mail seemed to be the best method for engaging him in discussion. We had been communicating via e-mail for several years, and had been in contact more frequently prior to the start of the interview. When Julian entered the nursing home and I decided to begin interviewing him, using a format he was familiar with seemed to be the most logical solution. I sent the first e-mail on March 3, 2010, in which I told him I wanted to ask him interview questions in order to learn about and document his life. I spent the following four months conducting the interview in a manner similar to an in-person interview, only broken into smaller segments.
My grandfather’s response indicated the he was most interested in talking about his experiences in the Korean War, so I used this as a jumping-off point. Thereafter, a typical exchange included e-mail from Julian providing answers to my queries and information about events, and my return e-mail of open-ended follow-up questions. Brief exchanges worked especially well because of Julian’s short attention span. He tended to fixate on a certain event or period in time, and wanted to talk about it at length. However, he also tended to remember additional details after the original telling. Because of this, he often sent long responses followed by several brief notes with additional information.
Below is a transcript of Julian’s e-mails from April 29 and April 30, 2010. Julian types in all capital letters, so for readability I have re-typed his answers. As these are direct transcripts, his original spelling and grammar has been kept intact. My questions are in italics. For brevity’s sake, I also left out all other parts of the e-mail messages, such as greetings, that did not directly pertain to the line of questioning. Because Julian does not tend to type for more than one paragraph, keeping line breaks the same as the original was not a concern.
Well! Here we are in Korea, what an auful place to be. Not a building left standing all roads were dirt. We were lucky enought to have quansan huts to sleep in. The poor old Koreans had nothing. Now for the second tear jerket. We didn’t have much to eat either. One time all we had was pure fat boiled in water. I tried to eat it but I just could not get it down. There was a tent outside where we put our garbage and wash our mess kits. There were old women out there and they would grab that fat out of the mess kits and push that fat down their throats with their fingers. They were hungry. I tear up if I try to tell about (J. Huntley, personal communication, April 29, 2010).
What were the huts like?
Quanson huts are made from curved, corgated sheet metal. They are about 20 feet wide and about 10 feet high and about 60 feet long. They are not too bad to live in. They are mostly on cement slabs. The Korean village was not far from our air base. They had normal Korean dwellings; but nothing to eat. The brick buildings were all bombed out (J. Huntley, personal communication, April 30, 2010).This selection illustrates the benefits of using e-mail for conducting oral history interviews. Foremost, it highlights Julian’s abilities as a storyteller. In my experience, he is less-detail-oriented when recounting his past aloud, so I wonder whether the richness of his description comes from using a medium that allows him to revise his thoughts.
At the end of the first e-mail, Julian was upset, which would happen occasionally when he talked about the people he met in Korea. Because we were using e-mail, he could stop whenever he needed to and come back to my questions when he felt ready. He would not have been able to do this in a face-to-face interview. His second response is shorter than his previous message, which is typical of his style: He often sent a longer paragraph, then a brief response, and then e-mailed me again with a longer narrative about a different event. He responded best to e-mails with a small number of questions (two or three) as he tended to overlook parts of longer messages. While these benefits were evident to me as an interviewer, I also found ways in which this method was more challenging than traditional interviews.
The process of interviewing Julian highlights the value of utilizing e-mail to reduce barriers in communication and create an interviewing environment with less pressure or frustration than might occur in a traditional face-to-face oral history. This method’s most obvious benefits concern working with someone who is hard of hearing. Sitting and talking with my grandfather in person tends to involve nearly yelling, and is frustrating for him because he has trouble hearing and understanding what is said. He is able to read a computer screen and tends to respond more fully when typing than when speaking.
In his e-mails, Julian’s narrative showed greater depth and breadth than his stories had when told in person. He asked questions and changed the course of the interview to discuss topics he was interested in, which suggested that he enjoyed having some control over the interview process. He was more open to talking about a topic when I sent him questions and allowed him to respond in his own time (usually one to several days), and when he could go back and forth between topics. While both the interviewer and interviewee guide the discussion in a traditional oral history, e-mail is more user-friendly because both parties can refer back to earlier messages, and so are better able to remember and elaborate upon previous discussions. This allows participants to rethink their roles and become equals in a conversation. It also allows the researcher freedom to conduct interviews without the interference of financial or time constraints.
From a practical standpoint, using e-mail is a more economical way to conduct an interview than working with traditional oral history tools. Some people do not have access to a computer or reliable Internet access, but for those who do, e-mail may be a more affordable solution than renting or purchasing sound equipment and transcription software.
E-mail is also a very user-friendly interview tactic, particularly for those who have little experience in organizing and classifying information for later use. In my case, I saved the e-mails from Julian in a folder in my e-mail account. With this approach I could easily locate e-mails as needed and could save them on my computer as separate documents, or paste them into a transcript.
While privacy concerns should be given the same importance as they are in other interviews, if an interviewer has permission to share the work it becomes much easier and cheaper than making copies of audiotapes or paper transcripts. Researchers might share items through an institutional or personal website so others have easier access. Because the transcript is created and kept in a digital format such as PDF, individuals and institutions that are unwilling or unable to digitize transcript tapes may be particularly interested.
Just as it has its benefits, using e-mail for interviews comes with unique drawbacks. Research has indicated that oral historians’ understanding of an interview is enriched by the non-verbal information within the dialogue, which is not recorded in a transcript (Klemmer, Graham. Wolff & Landay, 2003). Without being able to hear significant pauses or vocal intonation, it may be more difficult to fully understand what the interviewee is saying. Seasoned interviewers will be more aware of this than less experienced ones.
An e-mail-based interview also requires a longer time period for completion because each party is writing smaller parts of the interview back and forth, and often with a lag between them. The overall time would likely be comparable to a face-to-face interview, since e-mails are brief. The short amount of time per e-mail may be preferable for those with tight schedules, who do not have the ability to spend several hours on an additional task.
The most notable drawback is that the e-mail interview can be prohibitive for those without computer skills, or computer and Internet access. This is especially true for the elderly, who may not own or be familiar with computer technology, or elders with poor eyesight who may not be aware of - or interested - in purchasing assistive technologies to accompany a computer. Those who live in poverty and cannot afford a network connection may also find this format impractical.
The e-mail interview transcript helps libraries both from a collection development standpoint and a preservation standpoint. Since they are already in a digital form, transcripts can be used within online collections without steep overhead costs. Researchers can copy the interview into an e-mail or a storage device, which saves them the cost of printing or photocopying. Vision-impaired researchers can increase the text size, and those working remotely can access the materials without making a trip to the institution. Researchers who frequently work with materials online or on their computers will feel comfortable copying and pasting material, searching within documents, and sharing those items with others who might be interested.
One day large-scale collections of these interviews might be stored in repositories, if researchers adopt this format. As digital objects, e-mail interviews would save an institution the money and time associated with scanning paper transcripts and would negate the potential inaccuracy of re-writing transcripts, although both formats have accompanying preservation issues, such as file format, storage, compatibility, and information organization.
The rise of digital publishing allows for more stories to be heard, and an e-mail interview would lend itself well to publication either in a digital journal or a blog created to share parts of a digital personal history collection (Smith, 2006). Such collections could include the stories of individuals interviewed by family members rather than professional interviewers, hearing impaired persons, and those with whom interviewers wish to create a dialogue but find themselves unable to because of physical distance or a lack of time. This would allow for more diverse collections from which researchers and the public at large could learn about the lives of those who otherwise may not have their stories preserved. As e-mail becomes more common, the potential is there to interview an ever-increasing portion of the population, both in the U.S. and internationally, especially as large print and assistive technologies make it possible to interview those who would have found difficulty with the traditional oral history collection process.
Such a collection method also lets us reinvent the notions of “interviewer” and “interviewee.” The e-mail exchange allowed me to enter into the role of “interviewer” for short periods and without having to take considerable time away from my other obligations. We both felt authorized to spend time away from the interview if we felt tired or overwhelmed, without upsetting the process. This format let me document a story that otherwise would go untold and allowed Julian to feel as though his story was valued.
Julian’s story and others like it provide digital content that can complement existing oral history collections or form the basis for new ones. Those who might not be good candidates for a traditional oral history interview can now share their stories. While there are still challenges to this approach, the potential benefits, particularly in an age where more people are becoming increasingly comfortable with digital technologies, may help scholars reinterpret what it means to interview and be interviewed, and how a text-based interview might alter our understanding of the work as well as our method of preserving it.
Klemmer, S.R., Graham, J., J. Wolff, G.J., & Landay, J.A. (2003). Books with Voices: Paper Transcripts as a Tangible Interface to Oral Histories. CHI letters, 5(1). Retrieved from http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/Pubs/TechRpts/2002/6186.html
Smith, R.C. (2006). Publishing Oral History: Oral Exchange and Print Culture. In T.L. Charlton, L. Myers, & R. Sharpless (Eds.), Handbook of Oral History(p. 411-424). Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press. Retrieved from http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/education/institute/multimedia/publishing_oh.pdf
Julia Skinner is a doctoral student at Florida State University. She received her MLS from the University of Iowa, in the School of Library and Information Science and the Center for the Book, where she edited the SLIS open access journal, B Sides. She conducts research on library history, censorship, and LIS education.
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