For most historians, the interview becomes the "moment of truth." Oral History, unlike documentary research, brings the researcher into contact with living, breathing human beings. Their knowledge is the object of value.
Background research is also essential for preparing the interviewing guide-essentially a topic outline, or 'shopping list,' of the historical information the project is to obtain. Our interviewers never go into an interview cold; the more they know about an interviewee and subject the better job they'll do.

The interviewer developes an interview guide which raises themes that are both relevant to the interviewee's personal experience, and indicative of larger issues about which they wish to learn.

The interview guide is not meant to be a questionnaire from which the interviewer will read their questions word-for-word. A rigid, word-for-word list of questions make the interview stiff, awkward; it restricts the flow too much. Therefore, questions are not written out in full and read; they make notes. The guide however, should be read and re-read until the interviewer has a clear idea of the topics the project concerns. Sometimes the interviewer may depart from the guide to pursue new directions that develop during the interview.

Important pre-interview preparations are deciding the scope of thr project, conducting background research, locating potentially good interviewees, explaining the project, and setting up the interview.

Locating and Screening the interviewees

Locating can often be done by telephone or word of mouth: simply asking around.

First contacts can often be made by telephone; but such calls are always unexpected. Therefore, whenever possible we'll send a preliminary letter or email before we call. When we do call, we explain the project clearly to our contact, and inform them as to what we expect from them.

Screening may or may not be necessary, depending on the number of potenitial informants we have. If there are more than we have time and resources for, we will conduct an informal conversation by phone, to determine whether the person knows the information and is willing and able to give it.

Screening is easiest when we have a clear idea of what we want to find out. Our initial conversation with the potential informant touching on his/her Pennsylvania State Police experience, would indicate whether he or she is a potential interviewee. We try to avoid premature judgments about who will or will not be a good informant; one may look unlikely, yet have a wealth of knowledge.

The best informants quickly understand what we are looking for, and so interviewers should be confident, talkative, and alert.

Although many potential informants are pessimistic, skeptical or reluctant and may mistrust our motives, we reassure the prospective informant that we are not out to exploit, ridicule, or take advantage of them; and their information they provide won't be misused or used turn a profit. In fact, we respect all of our interviewees and the knowledge they have of their Pennsylvania State Police experience.

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