The Other Side of the Recorder: Interviewers’ thoughts on interviewing By Elliot Wesselborg

The Other Side of the Recorder: Interviewers’ thoughts on interviewing

By Elliot Wesselborg


The role of the interviewer in an oral history interview is mainly to listen. We interject with the occasion follow-up question or to suggest a new topic, but by and large we are silent on the record. In this space, I want to turn the microphone on ourselves, so to speak, and discuss our own experiences with the archive. I reached out to some classmates to gather their reflections about working as interviewers and explore what we’ve been thinking about in relation to the project.

Rylee said that, as an Iowan herself, this project has made her “question how much has been kept from me (like my grandma specifically not telling me that one of my friends’ mom was a single lesbian farmer).” I relate a lot to this. The more I learn about queer life in Iowa, the more annoyed I am that I didn’t know about any of this before. There are so many amazing stories and people and places; if not for this project, I probably wouldn’t have heard about any of it. Interviewing people has opened my eyes to many aspects of queer history and queer communities both past and present.

Up to this point, my experience of queerness has been very generationally limited. I’ve loved the opportunity to talk with people who were putting on drag shows two decades before I was born. LGBTQ identities are often framed as being of “the future,” sometimes obscuring the reality that queer lives stretch back into the past. A vast amount of queer knowledge is already out there, and I find it deeply reassuring to see myself as stepping into a lineage of queerness.

Especially for those of us raised in metropolitan areas, this project is also an important reminder that queer lives are not limited to places we think of as LGBTQ hotspots. LGBTQ life is primarily discussed as something that exists in urban areas. There is lots and lots of representation of gays in cities and very little of queer and trans people anywhere else. After talking with people who have built lives on farms and in tiny towns, Steven noted that “I wasn’t raised a rural queer but that may or may not be in my future.” The narratives in this archive help to expand our visions of what a queer life can look like.

Much of what makes queer lives livable has to do with the communities we form in order to support one another. Whether they are informal or institutional, these networks sustain us and people often talk about how live changing it was to find that first queer community. However, Payson commented on how the word “community” is often thrown around without much consideration for the labor that goes into creating and sustaining interpersonal connections or recognition of differential distribution of power and resources. Creating community requires constant investment of time and resources and too often that work goes under-recognized. At the same time, these resources are unevenly allocated according to race, socio-economic status, disability and so on. As such, some queer communities are far more visible and well-resourced than others and some queer people are subject to far more marginalization within queer communities than others. In addition to celebrating queer community, we need to continually interrogate these entities—how and where do they fail? How do we hold ourselves accountable to one another? How can we do better?

Lastly, we had some thoughts about interviewing itself. The oral history interview is a pretty unique space; sitting across from a virtual stranger and listening to someone’s life story for two hours is not a typical style of interaction. None of us are professional oral historians. In class we read about the ethics, best practices and general tips for interviewing. We listened to interviews and practiced interviewing each other, but we are all in the process of learning how to do this. For some of us, the idea of occupying this space was intimidating and we wondered whether our social skills were good enough for the task. Whatever our concerns going in, however, my classmates all told me how meaningful it is to be trusted with a narrator’s stories. Many of us were surprised at the intimacy of the interview space; Rylee explained that her favorite moments are when someone tells her “I have never told anyone this before.” It’s a privilege to be let into our narrator’s lives and we hope some of that experience comes across as people listen to the interviews.

The entity that is LGBT Oral Histories of Central Iowa is, in part, reflected in the audio files on this website, but also extends beyond that. As a community project, we are just as invested in its impact outside of the specific space of the interview. As we continue to build this archive, we hope it will be a resource for queer and trans people in Iowa to learn more about each other and to foster connections outside of this space.