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On Oral Histories: Process Notes

by Roz Bornstein and Pamela Brown Lavitt, Oral Historians

Preparation: Establishing Rapport

The thirty women interviewed and photographed for this exhibtion were identified by the Seattle Community Advisory Board (CAB) in 2000 and 2001. Our preparation began by researching our subjects at the University of Washington’s Jewish Archives Project and the Seattle Public Library. In some cases we relied on background materials provided by the women themselves, such as videotapes, memoirs, and publications.

We then created a list of interview questions tailored to each woman’s life, supplemented by the Jewish Women’s Archive Topic Guide which mapped out the overall themes to be addressed. This preparation enabled us to establish rapport with the narrators, and make them feel as safe as possible in sharing their memories. The CAB was also instrumental in reassuring the women about the project and the importance of their own lives and stories. The approach resulted in quite individualized, textured oral histories linked by common themes and questions.

The Interview Process: Weaving Emotional Fabric

The oral histories were conducted with each woman individually in her home. Most were conducted in 2001 and 2002. Interviews ranged from one and a half to five hours in length, over one to three sessions. This time frame freed us from a loose chronological approach and enabled us to explore and capture the emotional and subjective content of women’s storytelling.

Open-ended questions such as “How did that impact you?” or “What prepared you to take that step” or “How did you manage?” elicited further reflection. As oral historians of women’s history, we cultivate a heightened sensitivity and awareness to the narrators’ feelings. This is key to respecting boundaries and privacy while exploring such intimate emotional landscapes. We drew upon the work of anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff, therapist Michael White, oral historian Sherna Gluck, and historian Joyce Antler to inspire and guide us in this process.

Creating Access: Sharing the Stories

The completed interviews were transferred to CD-ROM, transcribed and edited by the oral historians for accuracy. We then returned the transcripts to the narrators to review and make final decisions about any restrictions they wanted to impose on their narratives.

This web exhibition features excerpts from the transcripts. If you are interested in obtaining oral history transcripts, please contact the Jewish Women’s Archive.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "On Oral Histories: Process Notes." (Viewed on October 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/communitystories/seattle/on-oral-histories>.

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