Quality Interviewing

Young Archivists leading interviews at Paganel School

In the Paganel Archives After-school Club these past two weeks we have been focusing on interviews as an archival resource and interview skills such as the use of open and close questions and reflecting as an interview technique.

These techniques are important to ensure the interviewers are gathering as much useful knowledge and insight as possible from the interviewee and steering the conversation in the direction and topics they are interested in.

Interviews are an incredibly useful source for a historian, if recorded accurately they can be very revealing. With the development of modern technologies it is now possible to record interviews with practically any device (a phone, a computer, a laptop, a tablet etc.). Cameras can also be used not only for voice recordings but also videos of interviews, which is useful as body language can also be analysed in combination with what is said verbally. The quality of recordings have also improved meaning it is easier to gather information from interviews as well as conduct interviews with more than one individual without worrying about the picture or sound quality. This increases the type of interviews which can be carried out such as with a particular group of individual’s or a discussion about particular events or a family interview.

The importance of interviews has grown as availability of physical sources has decreased due to being destroyed, not archived correctly or lost. Also as the interest in personal and individual histories has increased, such as personal experiences of war for example, due to commemoration of the one hundred years anniversary of the First World War and the Somme. Also there is increasing emphasis on individual histories and experiences of war particularly in relation to the Second World War, leading to greater attempts to interview individuals.

In relation to this, as part of the Women in History project I reviewed some interviews as part of the millennium project at the Birmingham Library Archives. The varying quality of interviews highlighted the importance of not only what was said in the interview but also how the interview was conducted. Emphasising the importance in teaching people from a young age the methods and techniques of interviewing, not only for archival purposes but for personal projects and purposes.

Interviews are increasingly being used as useful historical sources, especially in the modern technological age and as first hand experiences of events are lost as time passes and surviving individuals dwindle. Therefore as the importance of interviews increase we as historians, archivists and history enthusiasts have a responsibility to ensure the interviews are accurate and informative for future generations.

Robyn O’Halloran
PHC Intern, University of Birmingham 

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