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Oral History Program

INTRODUCTION  

Oral history is about people and their experiences. It is not always about renowned people; it can very appropriately focus on a person with noteworthy experiences, but who probably would never write about those experiences.

Historians have carefully preserved the hard evidence of history - artifacts, books, photos - but oral history provides the flavor that can bring these evidences to life. An oral history program can help to gather information on the significance of civil engineering in the development of a specific region, a country, and, even, the world. There is an immense amount of fascinating information which may be lost at the death of our senior civil engineers.

Oral histories are one way for students, as well as the general public, to better appreciate those who have had key responsibilities in planning, designing, and constructing some of the civil engineering facilities that are so often taken for granted. An overall view of the challenges of a particular time become apparent as an individual's recollections are accumulated and preserved for the future.

ASCE's History and Heritage Committee encourages all areas of the Society, especially the local History and Heritage committees, to participate in this program and hopes the following will be helpful.

SELECTION OF SUBJECT 

If you do not know with whom to begin, look at the:

  1. listing of Honorary Members or in the Official Register for engineers who have received ASCE honors and awards
  2. listing of past officers of your Section or Branch
  3. local engineers that you know of that were project engineers at the time of some significant project or some unusual incident on a project.

The objective is to obtain a recording of good quality with the least possible trouble. With the excellent digital recorders available today, the technology should be the least problem. As of now, the best medium for storage is the CD or DVD. If possible, transcripts should be made of the interviews just in case there are technical problems later.

PREPARATION 

1) Determine the goal(s) of the interview by asking

  • Is it information about a specific topic, like engineering methods, a specialized highway construction technique, or a specific civil engineering plan or construction?
  • Does the subject have interesting insights about a specific event, like the Hyatt Regency walkways collapse, or the design and construction of a specific structure?
  • Is the subject an especially interesting person or influential in his or her field?

Whatever the goal or goals, tell the subject what they are, so that he or she will be comfortable in agreeing to be interviewed.

2) Researching the subject

  • It's quite necessary to know as much about the subject as possible in advance. Use any information available - written histories, autobiographies, family and friends, diaries, scrapbooks, and newspapers - to compile a data sheet about the interviewee.
  • The more the interviewer knows about the subject, the easier it will be to obtain significant information.

3) Preparing the questions

  • Develop an outline for the interview based on the information gathered. This will give direction to the interview.
  • The interviewer should be ready with a key question to ask, should the subject get way off the topic at hand.
  • The subject should not be given a copy of the outline, as that might limit the interview to only those topics. Chances are that many unplanned insights will be made by the interviewee if the interview is not too tightly structured.

INTERVIEW 

1) Selecting the Location

  • Consider the location for the interview. Select a place where the subject is comfortable and relaxed.
  • Conduct the interview as much as possible without interruptions and distracting noises. An audience should be discouraged, as this would distract both the interviewer and interviewee.

2) Techniques for conducting an interview

  • Listen well (the interviewer is not supposed to be the subject);
  • An interviewer should be sensitive and direct the course of the interview without overwhelming the subject. Be intelligent and inquisitive enough to pursue valuable information as it is uncovered. The interviewer should resist interrupting, talking excessively or forcefully directing others because this will impose his or her own personality on the subject.
  • Liken an interview to an investigation. Remember the goal is to get the interviewee's personal and first hand information.
  • The subject's name, the date, and place of the interview and the name of the interviewer should be recorded at the beginning of the interview.
  • This is important - be interested in what the subject is saying. Encourage by nodding, even though it doesn't get recorded.
  • Begin an interview with an easy open question - one that can be easily answered with an explanation. Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or no. A good question might be: "What made you decide on an engineering career?" Let the subject expound without interruption. This will let him or her gain confidence.
  • Continue with questions from the outline, avoiding interrupting with closed questions that can stifle initial enthusiasm. A closed question is one which can be answered with a simple statement of fact. If you want information like this simply jot down the questions and ask the subject at the end of the interview.
  • Take notes during the interview. Notes will help to develop new questions. These may help reveal pertinent facts the subject might have overlooked and may clarify confusing or conflicting statements that were made.

3) Subjects to Include

  • The subject's education should be discussed, including details on teachers or others who were of influence.
  • The description of the subject's early engineering career is very important, especially when given in terms of the structure of the civil engineering profession at the time; relationships between principals and assistants and the overall status of the civil engineer in the society are of interest. The subject should be encouraged to give details of relationships with associates.
  • Important projects (planning, design, construction, operation, writing, teaching, and research) in which the subject participated should be described both technically and in the context of their genesis and final realization.
  • Anecdotes concerning these projects are also of interest, including difficulties encountered, the use of new techniques, equipment and materials, etc.
  • Of special interest is the subject's most important contribution to engineering, in his or her opinion?
  • Information on the development of professionalism during the subject's career is important, e.g., the individual's participation in the affairs of professional societies, the problems of professional status, the diffusion of technical knowledge through meetings, conferences and published literature.
  • Interesting experiences associated with historical events or persons should be recorded. Of special interest are impressions of famous engineers with whom the subject may have had contact.
  • Of special importance are the subject's thoughts and opinions on both the technical and professional progress made in civil engineering during his or her lifetime. What does the subject believe to be the most significant engineering achievement or advancement made during the subject's career?
  • Remember that oral history is no more or less truthful than written history - both depend ultimately on the best memory of people. Accounts that differ from generally accepted accounts need to be explored in more detail.
  • Set a time limit of about two hours per session.
  • Try to identify dates and events accurately.
  • Bring the subject back from relating insignificant information as gently as possible.
  • Be sensitive and courteous at all times.
  • Try to keep the subject "on the record" because the recording will be no good if the recording contains privileged information.
  • Finally, the interviewee is the star. It's the interviewer's job to help others better know and appreciate the subject's information.

4) Oral History Recording Release Agreement 

The interviewer should complete the release agreement. Have the interviewee read and sign it before starting the interview. Click here for the release agreement. 

The release agreement should remain with the recording. If a copy of the recording is sent to ASCE Headquarters, a copy of this form must be sent with it.

5) Oral History Society

For further information on conducting oral histories, go to the Oral History Society's Web site.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW

1) Immediately after the interview, the interviewer should write a memorandum to accompany the recording. The memorandum should include everything the interviewer can recall relating to the interview itself, e.g., the subject's attitude, demeanor during the recording, comments made before and after the actual recording and any requests which the subject may have made.

2) It would be most desirable if a copy of the interview and, if possible, transcripts of the oral history recordings are sent to the History & Heritage Committee staff contact at ASCE Headquarters along with any appropriate notes and bibliography.