In the know: documenting oral history

Alisa Del Tufo '78

Alisa Del Tufo ’78

Have you ever considered asking someone — a relative, friend, or acquaintance — to dust off the cobwebs of their memories and tell you his or her story? Here, Alisa Del Tufo ’78 provides tips for the best approach to documenting oral history.

Del Tufo is founder and president of Threshold Collaborative, a national organization dedicated to using the power of stories to ignite and sustain social change. Since 1991, she has used oral history to find new ways to address domestic violence, about which she has authored two books. For her efforts, Del Tufo received Colgate’s Humanitarian Award (2008), Union Theological Seminary’s Distinguished Alumna Award, and three fellowships.

1. Documentation: Today, digital audio or video equipment is inexpensive and also available on your laptop or mobile device. For better sound quality, use an external mic. Try to minimize both ambient sound (fans, traffic) and your own exclamations such as ‘Oh,’ ‘Ah,’ or ‘Um.’

2. Address confidentiality: Before you start, inform storytellers to let you know if they don’t want certain parts recorded or shared. Letting people know that this is their story is essential; reinforcing it during and after the conversation is also important.

3. Listen deeply: The most important thing you can do when interviewing people is to create the space to really hear their stories. Deep listening is an act of focus, attention, and love. If you really listen, the story will flow in ways that you never thought possible. To support this goal, do the interview in a place that is comfortable, private, and quiet.

4. Scope: Have a plan — an outline or a set of questions designed with the particular storyteller in mind. Is it a story about their whole life, a particular experience, or something else? Limit your interview to 1.5 hours and schedule multiple sessions if needed.

5. Prop prompts: A great way to evoke memories and spontaneity is to use personal photos, music, and objects. Rich in meaning, they can spark a memory of a special moment or an important experience.

6. The right kinds of questions: Nothing is more frustrating when doing an interview (or talking to your teenager) than the Yes or No response. Make sure that your questions are open ended and emotionally evocative. For example, don’t ask: “Did you enjoy going to college at Colgate?” But ask something like: “Tell me how your experience at Colgate shaped you as an adult?” Or, “Can you share some of the important experiences you had at Colgate?” These questions will result in the person telling you emotional and meaningful stories about their experiences.

7. Intentions matter: Make certain that you are not talking to this person in order to pry, air a grudge, or make a judgment. You must be open and ready to hear your storyteller’s point of view.

8. Prepare yourself for surprise: This is one of the most amazing things about asking someone (even someone you know well) to tell you about his or her life. If your approach demonstrates genuine interest, then information, experiences, and feelings are shared that may never have been divulged before.

9. Enjoy yourself: You will be happy you did this!

What do you know? If you’re an expert in an area of your field or avocation and would like to share your sage advice, e-mail or write to the Colgate Scene, 13 Oak Drive, Hamilton, NY 13346.