Interviews, Research & Archiving, oh my!
August 18, 2009 12:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm preparing for a massive personal archiving/interviewing trip with my grandparents and need advice regarding many aspects of the project.

My grandparents came to America from Lithuania during WWII and have an amazing story that my cousin and I started documenting several years ago. Life being what it is, we really only got a rough outline and are now going for another week long visit with them (now 97 and 90 years old, but still witty and spry). Not only do they have some great/astounding anecdotes that we haven't documented, they also have an amazing collection of photos (some taken by Life Magazine photographers) which are in not such good order (to say nothing of being stored or digitally preserved).

Here are some of my concerns that perhaps y'all could help me with:

History: I'm not a historian, and so have been trying to bone up on the Soviet-Nazi conflict that took place in the Baltic States. Books and online resource recommendations are appreciated.

Preservation: I need to construct a good workflow for organizing/digitizing old photos. How best to store? Should I be uploading to the cloud, or bring an external hard drive with me?

Interview: Getting these stories out of them is not usually too hard, but I'm wondering about tried and true methods of biographical interview. Should we march thru the historical timeline? Jump around and organize later? Are there some good prompts I shouldn't forget to ask them?

Documentation: I would like to either film or audio record or both. I will probably have access to a decent microphone + laptop and a so-so digital video camera. Should I have both roll at the same time, or just favor one vs. the other? This is my weakest link. Is Audacity a good enough program, or should I be throwing down for something else?

In addition to doing this for my own (and my family's) edification, I'm gathering this info now for some sort of creative project in the future (still yet to work out - could be something as mundane as a book, or more outlandish like an interactive sculpture, or hyperlinked map). I've started making things like timelines and maps of their trip from Lith to Germany to Britain to the US; got any other ideas of rich add-ons?

Lastly, I'm looking for other media to bring with me that may enhance their reminiscing, especially music of the era/region (they were in Germany for quite a few years in the late 40s. Got some faves?

Thanks to all in advance!
posted by ikahime to Human Relations (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This recent post might be helpful.
posted by Tin Man at 12:11 PM on August 18, 2009

With regards to preservation, do both. Digital photographers usually carry around a couple of external hard drives so that if one dies, they don't lose their work. Uploading and keeping a copy on a hard drive should keep you covered in case of digital disaster.

Also, using archival gloves when you handle photographs and other documents will extend their physical lifespan. You'll have digital copies, but the physical ones tend to have a sentimental value.

You'll also probably find it helpful to keep a log of everything you digitize. Number them as you go through them and then provide a brief description, including the content of the photograph, date if possible, and any markings on the photograph itself. This will help you find things when everything turns into a blur.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:16 PM on August 18, 2009

I would also suggest contacting your local archival institution, whether it's a university, a historical society, or something else. I bet they'd be glad to help you.

Also, depending on the materials you collect, they might be interested in adding the records have to their archive.

Anyway, good on you for doing this.
posted by elder18 at 12:50 PM on August 18, 2009

Just from experience of doing something like this with my grandparents, I would recommend recording while going through the photographs to get the who/what/when information. Going thru old photos to label them brought up a lot of strong emotions and trggered many memories. This may be a good starting point and help you get the family relationships down pat.
posted by readery at 2:06 PM on August 18, 2009

Best answer: Documentation: I think you might find keeping a digital voice recorder handy really helpful. They are a little less obtrusive than a laptop and can record with excellent quality. I use this Olympus digital recorder (many quality/compression options and easy to use) along with Switch to convert the files to MP3, and ExpressScribe to transcribe. There are a lot out there to choose from, but these have worked best for me. (And the software is free!)

I think the video sounds really cool, but I would save it for specific sit-down interview topics. Also, you might find that they start out really stiff and then get into it. You could try to repeat a couple of the early questions at the end of the week so you get a more fluid interview and then you can discard the stilted versions.

Interviewing: When I've done similar things, everyday tasks like doing laundry, cooking, gardening, etc bring up some really special stories that you'll want to catch. This is when the recorder comes in handy- just turn it on and let it record while you hang out and then later you can decide if the info is good. Definitely bring out the photo albums too- I'm surprised by how many new stories I hear every time they come out. Also, doing a family tree if you don't already have one is a good memory-jogger. Personally, I also think recordings of them speaking their first language to be awesome especially songs and nursery rhymes from their childhoods.
posted by Mouse Army at 2:20 PM on August 18, 2009

look into good interviewing techniques; i don't have any specific recommendations right now, but I'm sure some historiographer somewhere has written a book on it. Also, don't be afraid for it to be more 'conversational' rather than a formal interview - depending on their temperament, it may work better.

best of luck
posted by Think_Long at 3:40 PM on August 18, 2009

Best answer: A conversational interview is much easier to conduct (for both sides), and to listen to. Start the interview with basic facts (names, place, time, basic biographical data). Then just start talking. It helps to have a basic topic before you start (e.g. what was your childhood like?). A good length is an hour to an hour and a half.

Label everything by date, and add key words as you go.

If you're using a computer, or a device that lets you pick, encode the main interview as a .wav, or other lossless audio. You can compress to mp3 or whatever afterwards. And multiple backups! There's no such thing as archival dvds or cds, but don't use the cheapest pack at the store either.

Vermont Folklife Center, has some info on recording, editing, and preservation.
American Folklife Center, very informative guides from the Library of Congress.

I've used Audacity and ProTools for a major audio digitization project. Any editing was done on Audacity. You don't need a fancy program for playing with single tracks. You DO need to make sure you get the best audio the first time around, though.

As for general research, try playing with Google Books and Scholar. The wikipedia article on the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states may be a good starter.

This is a really interesting project! Good luck!
posted by shinyshiny at 1:56 AM on August 19, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the helpful info so far. I work at a university library and the archivist here suggested Doing Oral History. I've been to the StoryCorps site (very helpful), Wikipedia trolling was useful too. A lot more in there regarding Lithuania's role than I expected. Thanks, Tin Man, for the first link - I hadn't seen that post.
posted by ikahime at 7:53 AM on August 19, 2009

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