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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

In-Person or Remote? Why I Do Most Oral Histories Over the Phone Now

Metal-roofed pole barn on a rainy day
A metal-roofed barn on a rainy day is not the best place to record an oral history

Ever since people began collecting oral histories in the 1970s, they have tried whenever possible to record them in-person. Legends abound in the oral history community about researchers trekking miles up narrow mountain paths to some remote log cabin to record a crucial interview.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to physically visit their narrators in 2020, oral historians were forced to conduct interviews remotely, over the phone or Zoom. And ever since then, many oral historians—including me—have discovered that it’s often easier to record oral histories remotely.

I started collecting oral histories in summer 2021, just as pandemic restrictions were lifting but many people were still concerned about COVID. At first, I tried to conduct as many oral histories in-person as possible. That meant that I had to focus on locations that I had time and funding to visit—which in 2021 was only in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.

Even then, I found that I was unable to physically visit several important people I wanted to interview. My study area—the entire northeastern and midwestern United States—was far too large for me to just drive over and visit every person who was interested in doing an interview. I didn’t have time or funding for that kind of travel. So from the beginning, half of my interviews were recorded remotely.

Don’t get me wrong—I love visiting people’s farms and seeing in-person what they are doing. But I’ve discovered that it doesn’t usually work well to combine a farm tour with an oral history. It doesn’t work to make a recording when we’re walking around looking at things, because whoever is listening to the recording wouldn’t have a clue what we are looking at. We have to be sitting in a quiet room, free from any background noise, for one to two hours. And it’s often difficult to combine that with a farm tour.

Ironically, I discovered that in-person interviews didn’t even sound better than those I recorded remotely. Many of the narrators I interviewed in 2021 wanted to sit outside because of COVID concerns, and parts of the recordings are unintelligible due to background noises we hardly noticed at the time—raindrops on a metal roof, lawn mowers, air conditioners. Even when we were inside, the recordings vary widely in volume depending on how close the narrator was sitting to the recorder. On the phone, people usually stay the same distance from the microphone the whole time, and background noise is much less distracting.

So even though the pandemic is over, I am recording almost all of my new oral history interviews over the phone. With my limited time and funding, this enables me to connect with people who live too far away for me to just drop by and visit in-person. It’s easier for both of us. We only have to schedule the time for the actual interview, not a whole visit. You don’t even have to clean your house.

And who knows? Even if I do an oral history with you over the phone, I may still have a chance to visit your farm someday. When I do, we won’t have to set aside time for making a recording. We can just have a casual chat and walk around. And that makes for a better visit anyways.

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