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Barn Hunting for Beginners Part II: The Art of the Ethnographic Interview

Barn hunting may be done (although I have only just discovered two barns I missed in my survey, so my declaration was premature), but my work as the barn hunter is far from finished. Surveying season is over, but interviewing season is now just underway.
My project is an ethnographic analysis of barns, rather than a purely architectural study. A bare bones definition of ethnography from the online Merriam-Webster dictionary states: “:  the study and systematic recording of human cultures; also :  a descriptive work produced from such research.” Thus, my barn research does not end with counting, photographing, classifying and observing the structure of the barns. In fact, I believe that was only preliminary research. The ethnographic part, which consists mainly of interviews, is where the real story begins. 

Like any other skill, learning to be a good interviewer is a process of learning from others, reading about how it’s done, and a lot of trial and error. I have a lot of experience interviewing people, since I once worked as a newspaper reporter. But ethnographic interviews are a bit different. Last year in my graduate field school in Keels, Newfoundland, I learned a lot of new skills about how to conduct interviews properly. For starters, remember that an ethnographic interview (which can also be called an oral history interview) is not necessarily just for your own reference, but could end up being a historical record available for posterity. So with that in mind, here is my quick and dirty and not in any particular order manual to the art of the interview. 

1. Get the best audio recorder you can afford and learn how to use it properly
There’s all sorts of fancy audio recording technology out there, many of it running in the thousands of dollars range. I can’t afford that, but it is important to get the best recorder you can afford. Do not use your cell phone, thinking it will be “good enough.” You never know where your recording will end up: archives, radio, television. So don’t cheap out. I learned this important lesson from Dr. Guha Shankar of the American Folklife Centre, and he is an expert who seriously knows his stuff. The same goes for photography and/or videography. Ideally with an interview you will use external mics, but I really couldn’t afford that much equipment. I bought a basic model of a respectable audio recorder brand, and I learned how to use it.

My friend the Tascam DR-05, available from Amazon and other purveyors of electronics.

– Read the manual and test it out with yourself several times from different angles and at difference settings to be comfortable with it. It’s embarrassing to be fumbling around with your equipment at an interview, so figure it out before it gets to that point. 
– Always record in the highest quality (.wav vs. .mp3 for example). It will take up more space, so always promptly upload the files onto your computer and then back it up religiously. Losing an interview is devastating. 
– Always bring extra batteries. ALWAYS. 

2. The interview is not about you. Be a good listener. 
The first time I ever heard a recording of an interview I’d done with an informant, I almost died of humiliation. Seriously, my face heated up to dangerous temperatures. I was constantly interrupting my informant (this is how we in Folklore commonly refer to the people we are interviewing) with little anecdotes of my own, finishing their sentences for them, and generally being a loser. Your job as the interviewer is to stimulate conversation, and then to let the informant talk. Keep your own commentary to a bare minimum. Trust me, the first time you hear yourself on tape, you will vow never to speak again in an interview. 

3. Don’t be an interrogator. Keep it as casual as possible. 
I used to go into every interview with a long list of questions. This is fine, but I found that it distracted me too much and sometimes distracted the informant. Now, I just take in a short list of keyword reminders. I still prepare for the interview and think about what I most want to know, but I’m not married to a sheet of questions. Start out with a few basic questions and you will usually find that the conversation spins off in all sorts of directions. Let it. Many times the most important information to come out in an interview will not be in response to a question you had, but will naturally emerge from the memories of the informant. 

4. Brief the informant before the recorder is turned on
Sometimes the audio recorder can be like an elephant in the room. Conversation is going great, the informant is a fountain of knowledge, and then suddenly you bring out the recorder and the temperature suddenly drops in the room. Recorders can make people a bit nervous, so be as casual as possible. Never record without the informant knowing. Breaking trust is not only a shady move, but is unethical in situations like these. See #5. Explain what sorts of ground you want to cover in the interview and let them know that if they ever want the recorder turned off, you will do immediately. Don’t ever break that promise. 

5. Obtain oral or written consent before beginning the interview 
As a university student, I am required to pass a rigorous ethics review before beginning my research, and this includes drawing up an informed consent form which informants must sign before the interview begins. The form basically ensures that both parties know why the data is being collected and what is to be done with it. In my case, this includes obtaining permission to use the data in my thesis, on this blog, and to submit it to the archives. There were lots of shady ethnographers in the past who collected data from people and then used it for their own advantage without ever obtaining permission. That was totally lame and made lots of people suspicious and rightly so. 

6. Enjoy the process. People want to tell you their stories.
Despite all of the serious talk above, seriously, enjoy it. For me, interviews are the best part. A lot of people get nervous before interviews, and I still do get a few butterflies before each interview, but I truly enjoy it. Each interview I’ve done so far has taught me more about barns, but has also been a great few hours. Often after the recorder is off, I end up staying around for a bit to look at photos or let the conversation drift into other matters. People want to share their stories. You are giving them the opportunity to do that, and it is truly a gift on both ends. 

For more information on interviewing, including a handy checklist and some videos (everyone loves videos)
check out these two posts from my friends at the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador here and here. An excellent and hilarious manual for interview skills is The Tape Recorded Interview: A Manual for Fieldworkers in Folklore and Oral History by Edward D. Ives.

Here are the wonderful informants I’ve had the privilege to interview so far. I will be sharing some of their stories in more depth in future posts, so check back!

Dave and Sharon Verot and Xina, Radville, SK.

The Verot barn southeast of Radville, built 1918.

Roy Levee, Radville, SK

The Levee barn, just north of Radville, was moved to this spot probably in the 1920s from its original location in the present ghost town of Brooking 8 miles to the west. It started out as a lumber building (built around 1910) and has just undergone its latest renovation.


Frank and Eveline Porte, formerly of Radville, SK, now living in Weyburn, SK

Eveline and Frank.
Frank showed me his beautiful woodworking during the course of the interview.
The former Porte farm, south of Radville, built 1926.

Roland Carles, Radville, SK.

The Carles barn, built 1925 (despite what the paint say!) is southwest of Radville, just a few miles north from the Porte barn.

Stafford McGrath, Ceylon, SK.

The McGrath barn southwest of Ceylon, built 1912.

Allan and Edith Ayotte, Ceylon, SK

Edith demonstrating how the butter dasher was used. How is this connected to the barn? The milk came from the cows housed and milked in the barn just outside!
The Ayotte barn, known as the North Star Barn, south of Ceylon, built 1916.
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