Oral History Project - Fish and Wildlife Service Oral History Handbook

. . .only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man--let me offer you a definition--is the storytelling animal.
Graham Swift, Waterland, 1983


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes the rich history and heritage of the Service and the many contributions of employees and others to the mission of the Service. To acknowledge their contributions, the Service is developing an oral history program to record their personal reminiscences.
The goal is simple:

To preserve the heritage and culture of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the eyes of its employees.

We want to talk to everyone who helped create our history. Interviewees will include former Directors and Regional Directors, refuge managers, biologists, clerical and support staff, maintenance people, people who worked closely with the Service as contract pilots, guides and members of conservation organizations, and personnel from every part of the country..

Their stories will be taped and then transcribed into written form. We plan to store copies of the tapes and transcripts in a variety of archives to ensure they are accessible including: the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia and the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery in South Dakota.

Pre-Interview Preparation

The success of an interview depends in large part on the preparation that goes into it. Two people need to be prepared, the interviewer and the subject or narrator.
Preparing Yourself.

Understand the goal of the FWS oral history program. Be able to explain the program succinctly.

Research the narrator and his/her career. Know something about who the person is and what s/he did. Why are you interviewing this person? The Oral History Coordinator can provide some background. Try to know enough about your narrator so you can ask intelligent questions.

Become familiar with the General Question list. For each person find out if there are specific questions or topics to be pursued. Write these questions down before the interview.

Collect all forms and equipment. It is especially important that you have the consent form. On that form be sure to type in the full mailing address so we can send the narrator a copy of his/her transcript.

Familiarize yourself with the equipment.

Reliable recorders

Audio-Maxell, TDK, or Hibias tapes or Sony Minidisks.

Have spare batteries, tapes and an extension cord. Label the tapes ahead of time.

Preparing the Narrator Before the Interview

Contact the narrator prior to the interview. Call or send a letter of introduction. Maybe set up an introductory meeting to get acquainted.

Provide a background statement on the project. If you would like you can send them this pamphlet.

Ask the narrator to think about how they would like to present the information. If the narrator would like to show any pictures, letters, maps, etc. ask them to prepare them ahead of time.

The Interview

During the Interview

Have the narrator sign the release form, make sure to get a mailing address for the narrator and information on distribution of transcripts.

On the tape record date, place, and the names of all the participants in the interview.
Minimize distracting noises. Avoid air conditioners, heaters, fans, TVís radios and other appliances that make a lot of background noise. Suggest disconnecting the phone. Any noise will be amplified on the tape.

A good interview is more monologue than dialogue. Be attentive, courteous and responsive, but remain largely silent.

Set up the equipment unobtrusively. Put the narrator, and yourself at ease.
If the recorder does not turn off at the end of the tape keep careful watch. Flip the tape without rewinding.

Do not fiddle with the tape recorder without good reason.

Use an external microphone set on a stand or platform away from table top noise (papers rustling, fingers tapping, pencils etc). Do not handle the microphone while the machine is on. Do not pass the microphone back and forth.

Have a notebook handy and record questions that occur to you during the interview. Jot down names and places to verify spellings or get additional explanations. Donít interrupt an interview to get spelling or minor clarifications.

Allow the narrator time to think or collect thoughts. If there is an obvious break ask a question from the list, or clarify points from the notes taken earlier in the interview.
Keep track of time, do not tire the narrator. Two hours is a long interview! If the narrator has more to say schedule another interview .

Donít use the same tape for more than one interview. Use a fresh tape for each person and a fresh tape for each interview with a narrator.

After the Interview

Punch the tabs on the tapes to avoid recording over a completed interview.
Label the tape with narrator's name, interviewer's name, date, location of interview.
Store the tape in its box in a cool, clean, dry place until it can be turned in for transcribing.

Write an interview report. Record who was present, topics discussed. Be sure you spell out any proper names used, ask the narrator for correct spellings. Provide information on the quality of the interview, any unseen factors that could affect the interview. If visual aids were used, a map or photographs, identify these and if possible include a copy with the interview. Record your impressions of how the interview went. Also, record whether or not follow up interviews are needed.

Create a key word index with personal and place names, project titles, events, years.

General Questions for Interviews

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they donít have to worry about the answers.

Thomas Pynchon

Use the following questions as guidelines, not as questions that MUST be answered. Try to get the narrator talking and keep the flow going. Use the questions to guide the interview and stay on course. Try to insure most of the information below is covered (although the order in which it is covered is not important). Pauses while the narrator collects his/her thoughts are fine but if the interview lags pull a question off the list to get it going again. Finally, try to get the narrator answering open-ended, why questions that evoke his/her personal history and reflections.

  • Personal Information
    • Birth Place and Date
    • Information on parents
    • What were their jobs and education?
    • Where did you spend your early years?
    • How did you spend your early years?
    • What hobbies, books, or events influenced you most?
    • What jobs did you have as a child?
    • Did you hunt or fish?
  • Education
    • What High school? Where? When did you graduate?
    • What University did you attend? When?
    • What degree?
    • Masters degree? Where and when? What kind of degree and what did you study?
    • PhD where and when? What kind of degree and what did you study?
    • What aspect of your formal education equipped you for the future?
    • Who most influenced your education and career track?
    • Did you have mentors, courses that especially stuck with you?
    • Were there adverse influences?
  • Military Service
    • Branch of the armed services?
    • Years served?
    • Duty stations?
    • Overseas duty?
    • Decorations?
    • What was your job?
    • Did military service relate in any way to your employment with the Service?
  • Spouse
    • Ask the same career questions of an employees spouse with the following other options:
    • How did a career or careers with the Service affect your family?
    • What would you like to tell others about being the spouse of a Service employee?
  • Family
    • When, where and how did the couple meet?
    • When and where did you marry?
    • Any children?
    • Information on children
    • What are they doing now?
  • Employees Career
    • Why did you want to work for the Service?
    • What was your first professional position-State, Federal, other?
    • What did you do?
    • Where did you go from there?
    • What attracted you to the service?
    • Duty Stations? Kinds of positions?
    • What were the pay and benefits like? Were there promotion opportunities?
    • Did you socialize with the people you worked with?
    • What did you do for recreation in the field?
    • How did your career affect your family?
    • Why did you leave the Service?
  • Daily Activities
    • What kinds of training did you receive for your job(s)?
    • What hours did you work?
    • What were your day to day duties?
    • Describe the science of the day.
    • What tools and instruments did you use?
    • Did you witness any new Service inventions or innovations?
    • Did you work with animals?
    • How did you feel toward the animals?
    • Did this change over time?
    • What support did you receive locally, regionally, federally?
    • How was the Service perceived by people outside the agency?
    • How were agency-community relations?
  • FWS Issues
    • What projects were you involved in?
    • What were the major issues you had to deal with?
    • How were those issues resolved?
    • What was your most pressing issue?
    • Has your perspective or opinion on that issue changed with time?
    • What was the major impediment to your job?
    • To your career?
    • Who were your supervisors?
    • Who were the individuals who shaped your career?
    • Who were some of the people you knew?
    • Would they be able to work for the Service today?
    • What Presidents, Secretaries of Interior, and Directors of the FWS did you serve under?
    • How did changes in administrations affect your work?
    • In your opinion who were the individuals who shaped the Service?
  • Perspective
    • What was the high point of your career?
    • What was the low point of your career?
    • What do you wish you had done differently?
    • What was your most dangerous or frightening experience?
    • What was your most humorous experience?
    • What would you like to tell others about your career?
  • The Service
    • What were some of the changes you observed in the Service?
    • In the Personnel?
    • In the Environment?
    • What are your thoughts on the future?
    • Where do you see the Service heading in the next decades?
    • Do you have any photographs or documents to donate, share or copy?
    • Who else should we interview?

Gift and Release Agreement

I do hereby give and grant to the United States of
(narrator's name)
America all literary and property rights, title, and interest which I may possess to the
recording and the transcripts of the interview conducted at
(full mailing address)
on for the Oral History Project of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
Washington, D.C., which gift I will never revoke or recall.

Narrator's Signature Date

Interviewer's Signature Date

Tape Identification and Index

All of this information is fairly straightforward although immensely important. The better you are able to identify the most important subjects discussed, the easier it will be for researchers to tell the history involved. Please identify keywords and subject shortly after you conduct the actual interview. For the Tape Identification # use the following format: Region # and Date (2 digits for day, month, year)

For example an interview conducted in Region 7 on January 2, 1999 would be identified as Tape # 7010299

Tape Number_________________ Date of interview____________________
Others Present___________________________________________________
Location of Interview (full mailing address) ____________________________________________
Indexed by_____________________ Date________________________
Did the narrator request a copy of the transcript? __ yes __ no


Subject Codes:
Personal names mentioned? (Check spellings with narrator if in doubt.)


Places mentioned:?


Projects discussed?


Important issues?


Keyword Codes
Please check off any of the following topics discussed.
__ endangered species __ hatcheries __ law enforcement
__ predator control __ wildlife refuges __ waterfowl
__ wolves __ pesticides __ Rachel Carson
__ surveys __ aviation __ education
__ species reintroductions __ spotted owls __ habitat
__ ecology __ ecosystem __ environmentalism
__ hunting __ fishing __ inventions
__ fish cars __ Ding Darling __ condors
__ eagles __ snail darter