At Arm’s Length: Collecting In-Person Oral Histories during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The following is a guest blog post by liaison specialist Owen Rogers and is meant to supplement the Veterans History Project’s (VHP) Conducting Virtual Oral History Interviews in Light of the Covid-19 Pandemic and Touching from a Distance: Lessons Learned in a Virtual Interview Environment.

In March 2010, I recorded my first veteran’s oral history. With a borrowed camcorder in my trunk and printed directions in my lap, I navigated to the home of World War II veteran Walter Swokla. For the next few hours, I experienced the magic of oral history. A feeling that the Oral History Association describes as a “dynamic, collaborative relationship between the interviewer and the narrator.” He shared how his Russian parents escaped a violent civil war only to find himself unloading cargo in the Port of Murmansk two decades later. The old sailor also told me an invaluable tool of the trade. Merchant Seamen would salt their coffee to keep from passing out from the heat of freighter engine rooms. I think of him – and that detail – every time I drink hot coffee on a summer day.

March 2020 felt very different from my first field recordings. Camcorders? Printed directions? Visiting veterans’ homes to record their wartime memories? Foundational moments felt so distant, and I longed for the oral history intersections that bring strangers closer together. It may be more challenging to do during the COIVD-19 pandemic; however, VHP prefers that you conduct in-person interviews when it is safe to do so. I personally understood these challenges when I conducted my first pandemic-era recordings. Sitting on a park bench one cold morning in November 2020, l spoke slowly and exaggerated my gestures to build rapport between a masked interviewer and narrator. I was so absorbed in the eyes and body language of my subject that I overlooked the freezing temperatures. When I reviewed the audio tracks, I could hear my teeth chattering!

Since then, VHP staff has accumulated resources and user feedback for mindful, socially-distanced in-person recordings. The Project encourages anyone, age 15 or older, to apply the following COVID-19 safety precautions and use the VHP Field Kit, sample interview questions and instructional video to record and preserve stories from the veterans in their lives.

Regardless of format, any oral history recording includes three phases: before the interview, during the interview and after the interview. In a COVID-19 interview environment, communication is essential for the safety of the interviewer and narrator.

Before the Interview

  • Have a pre-interview conversation on the phone and explain how the interviewee needs to prepare their home for the interview. Decide if the interview will occur indoors or outdoors.
  • If the interview will be conducted with masks on, establish rapport before meeting for an interview through a longer phone call or meet for “virtual coffee.”
  •  Communicate what the interviewer will do to ensure the narrator’s safety, including arrangements to clean and disinfect objects like lavalier microphones, a minimum six foot distance, and decisions to wear or remove protective face masks.
  •  Establish that personal data might need to be shared in the event of contact tracing.
  • Heed prevailing government advice about social distancing, particularly those relating to vulnerable populations.
  • Confirm that the interviewee has made arrangements for any caretaking responsibilities.

During the Interview (Indoors)

  • Built-in microphones are incompatible with social distancing. Use microphone cables that provide at least six feet of social distance between the interviewer and narrator. Alternatively, increase the length of your microphone cords using cable extenders.
  • Ventilate the room before, during, and after the interview.
  • Limit exposure risks by reducing the number of participants in the recording session. Forgo a camera operator and rely on a redundant audio recorder such as the Voice Memo phone app.
  •  Ensure other people living in the house are either not present or are socially distanced in another room.
woman in blue shirt and mask uses iPad to interview man in jacket holding up a photo

Maintain at least six feet of social distance during the interview. If indoors, set up the recording in a well-ventilated area.


During the Interview (Outdoors)

  • Check the weather forecast and dress accordingly. Plan a “rain date” for poor weather.
  • Choose the quietest available outdoor location. For example, prioritize backyards to reduce street noise.
  • Use microphone “muff” wind covers to ensure that both the interviewer and narrator are heard.
  • For outdoor recordings, use a portable power source such as a power bank to avoid using the interviewee’s main power
Native American Veteran in uniform sits outside with arms crossed

Check the weather forecast and bring wind-shielded microphones for outdoor recordings.

After the Interview

  • Exchange contact information for future contact tracing.
  • Stay in contact with the interviewee for at least two weeks after the recording.
  • Have a plan to update both parties in the event of a positive test for COVID-19.
  • Sanitize recording equipment and other items used during the interview.
  • Wait two weeks or receive a negative PCR test result before entering another interviewee’s home.
  • Send hard copies of VHP forms and the unedited interview files via commercial courier to the Library of Congress.

Please contact the Project with any remote interview questions by Asking a Librarian or emailing [email protected].

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