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 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 2

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide

Part 2: How to Document

How to document:


Interviewing is an efficient technique for gathering data and the one most often used by many cultural specialists. When a fieldworker conducts an interview, he or she must determine the amount of control to be applied. A non-directed interview encourages discussion of a wide range of topics that are largely determined by the interests of the informant. A directed interview is usually characterized by the interviewer's attention to very specific topics and questions. Sometimes the interviewer may change the approach. For example, an interviewer might switch from a directed to a non-directed approach if it becomes evident that an informant's storehouse of traditional knowledge presents an unusual opportunity for the documentation of many general aspects of local culture. Data elicited during interviews can be recorded in writing in the form of fieldnotes, or as answers to questions on a questionnaire. They can also be recorded verbatim on audio tape with a tape recorder, or recorded both aurally and visually on videotape with a video camera and sound unit. In the case of interviews recorded on audio or video tape, it is proper to ask the informant to sign a consent form in order to establish that he or she has given permission for the use of information on the tape. The text of the form should specify as accurately as possible where the tape recording will be deposited and how it may be used. If the informant wishes to place restrictions on the use of the recording, these restrictions should be written on the form. A sample "Informant Consent" form is included as Appendix A.2.

There is no question that tape recorded interviews are an effective way to collect information. To those unfamiliar with fieldwork, interviewing on tape may appear to be the easiest task imaginable: just turn on the tape recorder and let the person talk. But to obtain maximum value, a tape recorded interview should not be viewed as a replacement for background research or as a substitute for taking notes. Furthermore, since one's time in the field is limited, it is necessary to prepare thoroughly for interviews. Learn as much as possible about the topic or topics to be discussed. Attempt to anticipate the kind of expertise the informant possesses before the interview. Jot down notes in advance concerning topics to be explored. A novice should practice interviewing with a fellow team member, friend, or family member before entering the field. The experience of being interviewed is equally instructive and contributes to a keen appreciation of the process.

Interviews recorded on tape are documents which not only benefit the collector, but, if preserved in a repository such as a library, museum, or archive, can also assist future researchers. The interviewer should bear in mind that others not present at the time of the actual interview may someday listen to the tape. To facilitate full and proper comprehension of the interview, pay close attention to the technical quality of the recording, and try to clarify all issues discussed. If, for example, an informant says "I caught a fish this big," and holds his or her hands apart to indicate the size, the interviewer should say, "Oh, about thirty inches" (or whatever length is appropriate), in order to clarify the approximate size for the benefit of those who listen to the recording later on.

Since the field recording should represent, as accurately as possible, the communicative event involving the interviewer and the subject, the interviewer should not turn the recorder on and off during the interview in an effort to save tape. Moreover, if the interviewer frequently turns the recorder on and off when the subject is speaking, the subject can easily form the impression that the interviewer considers some statements to be less valuable than others. Fieldworkers should bring an adequate supply of tape and be prepared to let the recorder run as freely as possible.

The use of tape catalog forms, to be filled out by the collector as soon as possible after each interview, is essential. Completed catalog forms strengthen the value of recordings by providing detailed outlines of their contents. Even if full, verbatim transcriptions of field recordings are to be made later on--often an expensive and time-consuming process--the preparation of catalogs is still beneficial. An "Audio Tape Log" form is included as Appendix A.3.

Interviewing is a skill of some complexity. Available guides to the subject include Edward D. Ives's The Tape Recorded Interview: A Guide for Fieldworkers in Folklore and Oral History, Bruce Jackson's Fieldwork, and Kenneth S. Goldstein's A Guide for Field Workers in Folklore.1 These works cover such key topics as selecting an informant, learning to use recording equipment, keeping fieldnotes, using interviewing strategies, and cataloging and transcribing field tapes. These topics are also covered in the instructional videotape program on interviewing, An Oral's Historians Work, that features explanations and demonstrations by seasoned interviewer Edward D. Ives.2


1. Edward D. Ives, The Tape Recorded Interview: A Manual for Field Workers in Folklore and Oral History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980); Bruce Jackson, Fieldwork (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Kenneth S. Goldstein, A Guide for Field Workers in Folklore (Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1964).

2. Carl Fleischhauer, "Sound Recording and Still Photography in the Field," 387.


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   May 15, 2015
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