The Oral History Methodology
The Foundation for Iranian Studies has adopted the oral history methodology developed and used by the Oral History Research Office of Columbia University. Initially, in the summer of l982, ten interviewers and two transcribers, which included Iranian scholars and professionals then residing in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Paris, received an intensive course at the Foundation's headquarters in Washington, D.C. under the direction of Dr. Elizabeth Mason of Columbia University Oral History Program. Since then other interviewers have been trained and the program has been annually reviewed and evaluated for its relevance, adequacy and efficacy.
Interviewers have been selected from a pool of highly educated Iranian men and women in the United States and Europe. Of the ten interviewers selected for the first phase of the program, eight had Ph.D.s in the social sciences, including political science, history, literature, economics and communication. This high standard has been maintained throughout the program. Interviewers have been generally selected on the basis of their expertise in the field of interview. To ensure cost efficiency, they have been selected from areas close to the subjects' places of residence. While not always feasible, this rule has been substantially followed due to the clustering of Iranians in certain cities: London, Paris and Nice in Europe; Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, New York, and Washington, D.C. in the United States.
All interviewers are trained in the method of oral history, its basic concepts, use of technical tools, conduct of interviews, and legal and ethical aspects of their task. The training follows the pattern established by the Columbia program with proper adjustments to fit the purposes of the Foundation's program.
3. Preparatory Research
In addition to the general field of interview in which they have substantial knowledge, interviewers are asked to familiarize themselves thoroughly with the personal and professional background of the subject. Often the interviewer's task is made easier by the characteristic of the community of Iranians in exile, which often includes prior professional and/or social acquaintance between the interviewer and the subject.
4. Identifying and Contacting the Interviewees
Subjects of the interviews are selected from a master list prepared by an advisory group through a mutual decision of the project director at the Foundation and the interviewer who often acts also as field consultant. Either one may initiate names, specify qualifications, and advise on information to be secured. Past experience suggests that in many cases securing acquiescence to interview requires the project director's intervention. Scheduling the interview, however, is primarily the responsibility of the interviewer in the field.
5. Conduct of the Interview
The technique of interview calls for two qualitatively different stages. The first stage involves the necessary preparations for the interview. Accordingly, based on previous research, the interviewer reviews the general topic of the interview with the subject, constructs a general framework with the her or his cooperation, advises on the ethical and legal aspects of the interview, and secures signed agreement forms defining access to the interview. Prior to the interview the interviewer attempts to establish a rapport with the subject in order to create a comfortable environment for the interview sessions. The second stage involves the actual interview. The jointly prepared outline assures that certain important questions are formally asked and answered. But the real success of the interview depends on the interviewer's skill in inducing a positive environment which helps the subject to properly remember and give shape to his or her recollections as unobtrusively as possible. When Iranians are interviewed, the language of the interview is usually Persian; when non-Iranians are interviewed, the language is usually English.
6. The Finished Tapes
The finished tape begins with the following introduction by the interviewer: "This is an interview with (interviewee's name) for the Foundation for Iranian Studies, Oral History of Iran Program, by (interviewer's name) conducted in (place) on (date) at (time)." It then continues with the body of the interview, and ends with the interviewer's statement, "end of interview with (interviewee's name)." Once the interview is completed, the master tape(s) is(are) submitted to the program director at the Foundation's headquarters, where they are immediately copied and sent for safekeeping to a special bank vault.
7. The following stages then follow:
A. Transcription and Editing
Each interview is transcribed, audited and edited with fidelity not only to the content, but also to the prevailing tone and mood. To maintain the oral quality of the interview, texts are edited only when and where editing is necessary for easier reading. Consistency in form is an essential characteristic of each transcript. The following information appears on the first page of each transcript: The Foundation's name, project name, subject's name, interview number, interviewer's name, topic, date, and location of the interview. Every page following the first one is identified with the subject's name at the upper right margin and the page number at the upper left (the order is reversed in English transcripts).
After the approved transcript has been corrected, it is indexed. Individual indexes attached to transcripts are detailed and include all proper names, place names, and major subject areas covered in the interview. In addition, a general index appears at the end of the catalog.
C. English Summaries
Each Persian interview has summaries in Persian and English in which the major points of the interview and its general conclusions are extracted. The English summary helps scholars with little or no proficiency in Persian gain an understanding of the essential information obtained in the interview. Moreover, it directs them to the interviews that may be of value to their field of interest. In certain cases, the foundation may supply translations of excerpts of transcripts for a nominal fee.
Each interview contains a biographical note in English to enable the reader to establish the proper liaison between the subject matter and the subject's background.
E. Release Forms
The release form in each interview designates the condition of the interview as determined by the subject and the Foundation. Interviews are usually open and unrestricted. Stipulations to the contrary are defined in the release form and are strictly honored by the Foundation and other repositories of the Oral History Collection.
F. Binding and Cataloging
When transcripts are completed, i.e., when they contain a table of contents, full Persian or English text, English and Persian summary, index, release form and a short biography that also states the reason for the interview, they are bound and cataloged in the collection.
Evaluation is an integral part of the program and is carried out on three levels: first, an annual evaluations of the methodological aspects of the program, usually done with outside expert help; second, a biannual content evaluations by the director and consulting interviewers; and third, ongoing evaluations based on guidelines proposed in the Report of the Wingspread Conference of July 27 28, 1979, Racine, Wisconsin, as amended and approved by the annual business meeting of the Oral History Association, October 27, l979, East Lansing, Michigan.
There are two major repositories for the collection. One is the Foundation for Iranian Studies in Bethesda, Maryland, where all interview tapes and transcripts are kept. The other is the Oral History Collection at the Columbia University, which includes copies of English interviews conducted jointly by Columbia and the Foundation. Of the English interviews, a select number are sent to the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace in Stanford, California.