Oral History Tips For Lighthouse Research
Dan Conlin, Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society , 1997 Amendments by Chris Mills July 29, 2003
More than just yarn-spinning, oral history is an organized way or recording human experience stored away in memory. The human side of lightkeeping, the dramatic and humorous experiences, are usually left out of the written record. It does help to do some written research first so you know what to expect and to ask about.
Ideally, interviews should be taped (cassette or mini-disc) and transcribed so nothing is missed and the information can be shared, although this is not always possible. The following questions and tips are a good starting point, but should be customized with every interview. Oral history is now a recognized form of history. If interested, you might want to check out these guides:
Voices: A Guide to Oral History, Derek Reimer (Public Archives of B C, 1984) The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Paul R. Thompson (Oxford University Press, 1988)
Would like to do some interviews of your own? For basic interview questions compiled by Dan and Chris, please click here.
Oral History Interviews
Chris Mills has generously provided NSLPS with interviews he has conducted with former NS lightkeepers.
For an amusing tale of how you talk when the foghorn is operating, please listen to Jim Guptil with the Gull Rock foghorn sounding in the background.
For a haunting account of how you live with paranormal experiences, please listen to George Locke for his family’s encounters with the “presence” of the Country Island lighthouse phantom.
Basic Oral History Interview Questions for Light Keepers
- How did you come to be connected with the ...light(s)? How is your family connected with lightkeeping?
- Tell me about yourself (When and where born, your parents names, siblings.....)
2a) What are your first memories of the lighthouse/island/place (as a child, or as a first-time or incoming lightkeeper).
2b)* What sort of people were your parents/siblings, etc? Describe their character. (This question is likely better asked a bit further into the interview, when the interviewee is more relaxed and ready to be reflective)
- What were your duties/routines at the light?
- What was it like working there?
- 5. How were you/your family involved with lighthouse duties?
5a) What kind of a place was it to raise a family? Why?
- What would I see as a first time visitor to your station/island? Take me on a tour....
- What were some of the more memorable events at the light during your time there?
- How bad were storms during your time at the light? Describe what happened...Describes sounds, smells, your feelings as the waves washed over....etc...
- Tell me about any close calls of vessels in distress over the years.
9a) How much were you involved with marine traffic and mariners in your area?
9b) How important was the light and horn for people on the water in those days?
9c) Tell me about the light - how did it work? Fog horn how did it work? What did it sound like? How labour-intensive was its operation?
- How did the light change over the years? What equipment changed? Buildings?
- What years did you work at the station?
- What was it like dealing with the lighthouse bureaucracy? Examples.
- What kind of visitors did you have?
- What are some of the humourous stories connected with the light that you can share?
- What kinds of legends or (ghost) stories are associated with that location?
- When you go to the light now what features do you see that others might not recognize? - Foundations? Old equipment?
- Do you have/know of any good photos of the light?
- What pieces of equipment survive?
- What did you like best about working there? Why?
- What did you like least about working there? Why?
- What do you miss about your life on the lights? How often do you think about those days? What stands out when you reflect on your years on the lights?
21.a) What are your thoughts when you reflect on what has happened to lighthouses in recent years?
- Who else I should talk to about this lighthouse/island/place?
- Is there anything I haven't asked that you think I should know about the light?
- May I get back to you if any other questions come up?
- May I deposit a tape or transcript of this interview at the public archives so others may share your knowledge and memories?
A few interview tips:
- Start with general questions. The more freedom you give people to talk, the more they will bring up information without you even having to ask.
- Leave the specific detail questions for later on in the interview. An interview bogs down when people agonize over names and dates.
- Never interrupt. Not only is it respectful to listen and wait, but it often lets people introduce great information that you might never have though to ask.
- If interesting points are raised but not fully explained, note them and ask a follow-up question after the keeper/family member finishes. Simple follow-up questions are best: "Why was that?" and "What happened then?".
- DON'T BE AFRAID TO PUSH (GENTLY and RESPECTFULLY) FOR DETAILS OF AN INTERESTING STORY, PROCEDURE OR EVENT SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO DO THIS IN ORDER TO GET THE FULL STORY. IT'S WORTH IT!
- Avoid CLOSED "yes or no" questions as they usually produce abrupt "yes or no" answers.
- Avoid "double-barreled" questions such as "Can you tell me if you ever had a fire and if you ever had a major equipment breakdown?" Usually you'll only get one answered and the interviewee forgets or avoids the other.
- Keep your questions short and free from your own information and opinions.
- Avoid leading questions that put words in the interviewees mouth. For example: "You must have seen some dreadful shipwrecks and been in some heroic rescues." This rather insults the keeper's modesty and will probably get a negative answer, even if they did have some fascinating experiences.
- THANK THE INTERVIEWEE! IT'S A GREAT THING TO HAVE SOMEONE SHARE MEMORIES OF THEIR LIFE WITH YOU - RESPECT AND GRATITUDE FROM THE INTERVIEWER ARE ALWAYS APPRECIATED!
05/04/97 Prepared by the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society , Feel free to reproduce this as long as credit is given to the society.