Interviewing Primary Sources For Your Research Paper Help (page 2)
Interviewing Primary Sources
Often, the best and most unusual primary sources are people. If you are lucky enough to know or have access to anyone who has direct experience with your topic or has worked in a field connected with your research, then those people are key sources of information for you. How do you find and interview people who may have hectic schedules, and what strategic questions do you ask? This lesson will provide helpful suggestions about this process.
You might not realize how many people you and your friends or relatives may know, or just how many people to whom you have legitimate access via public sources of information. In other words, before you set out to interview anyone, make a preliminary list of five places or contacts that might provide you with people to interview. If your topic involves a person who lived recently, it is helpful to know if there are any surviving relatives who might be willing to talk to you. In addition, there are usually other authors who have already written books on your topic, and they might be willing to speak with you. You may have compiled this list of names and authors from your secondary sources, and if your topic is a current one, think of a list of professionals who work in that field every day. For instance, if you are researching the effects of environmental pollution on the drinking water in your neighborhood, your preliminary interview list might look something like this:
- an official from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)
- a local politician or local elected representative
- an informed citizen
- the local Department of Conservation and Water Protection
- an informed scientist or biologist
- a member of a local civic group
Materials for a Formal Interview
Most individuals, no matter how hectic their work schedules are, love to talk about what they know and do best. However, it is important to be prepared with the right equipment and questions before you interview anyone. For any interview, you will need:
- a small, hand-held tape recorder (with an extra set of batteries)
- a blank tape
- a note pad
- two writing utensils
Most people do not object to having a tape recorder record their conversation, but it is always polite to ask beforehand if a tape recorder is acceptable. There are individuals who prefer not to be recorded or feel that the presence of a tape recorder makes them nervous. Always remember to pack extra batteries just in case your tape recorder runs out of power, and always bring along a pad to take notes throughout the interview—even if you have a tape recorder playing. This allows you to have a backup in case there is some malfunction with your tape recorder, and taking notes helps you to pay better attention as the interview is progressing. In addition, always bring along more than one pen or pencil.
Questioning Your Interviewee
Before you proceed with your interview, make a list of five relevant questions so that you begin your interview with a focus. Normally, people enjoy speaking and often wander off the topic. While their information is often interesting, your questions help the interviewee stay focused on the topic at hand. Let's say that you are interviewing the first name on your list—an official from the Environmental Protection Agency. Your five questions should be general enough to cover all the relevant information while also containing specific questions that might apply to your thesis. A list of preliminary questions might look something like this:
- Can you briefly describe your title, job, and your daily responsibilities?
- What role do you and the Environmental Protection Agency play in water conservation (particularly in your local neighborhood)?
- Have you had any direct contact with the problem of water pollution?
- What types of findings and data have you and your agency collected from examining the local water?
- What conclusions or summaries have you made about water conservation, water pollution, or water resources?
Remember that your questions should always serve as a jumping off point—a prompt for individuals to speak about what they know. Do not overwhelm your interviewee with too many questions—usually five questions are all you need to obtain a wealth of information.
Other Ways of Locating Key Individuals
What if you are not researching a current topic or one that is readily accessible to you? In other words, you may not know of any individuals whom you can contact directly. Don't worry. Let's go back to the topic of President John F. Kennedy. Most likely, you do not have contact with the Kennedy family, and even if you did, members of the family might not want to speak about such a sensitive or delicate subject. Are there other people or other primary sources you could turn to for unique information? There are always other places to check for gathering primary source information. Below is a list of places to search for additional contacts that are open and available to the general public:
- The Internet or any website devoted to your topic. Just type your topic into one of the broad search engines mentioned in the previous chapter—this should yield a list of additional contacts and other individuals whom you can contact directly for more information.
- Historical and cultural societies. Often, they have staff who are experts in their particular fields and can provide you with professional information.
- Authors who have written about your topic. Consult your books for their publishing company. You can usually call the publishing company directly, ask for a publicist, and inquire how to get in touch with a specific author.
- Universities. Most universities have professors who have spent their careers researching particular subject areas and are experts in their field.
If these places still do not yield experts or professionals whom you can interview, you can always check your local, national, or even an international phone book to look up any societies, museums, cultural institutions, and perhaps, even private phone numbers of potential primary source individuals. Even if a living family member of President John F. Kennedy is not available for information, perhaps a famous biographer or professor would be willing to speak about the topic. There may also be a special historical association or website devoted chiefly to his presidency.
Interviewing people who are directly connected (either through professional experience or by relation) to your topic and subject area can produce fascinating and unique information. Remember, before you interview anyone, draw up a list of five potential candidates whom you can contact. Write out your preliminary questions beforehand, come prepared with all your materials, and if you can't find anyone in person, use the resources of the Internet and the institutions around you for additional experts.
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