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Oral History Interviews

Planning an Oral History Project | Interviewing Tips

There are many ways to document and preserve families histories. One approach concentrates on the examination of public records, such as census records, church records, wills, and deeds. Another approach focuses on the examination of various materials that are in the possession of family members, such as diaries, photograph albums, home movies, business records and artifacts. A third approach is concerned with recording oral history interviews with family members about aspects of their lives and memories of other relatives and important events in the family’s history.

Recording oral histories can be a very effective way of capturing information that is difficult to obtain by any other means. Oral accounts can serve to significantly complement other kinds of information. For example, a person being interviewed might tell the story behind a family event that's captured in a photograph, and name the family members depicted. Recorded interviews also have the added value of capturing the interviewees’voices and, if video recordings are made, those persons’moving images, too. There is a thrill in listening to the actual voices and viewing the moving images of your own family's elders.

Planning an Oral History Project

In order to get the most out of an oral history project, it is essential to develop a solid plan at the very beginning. The planning process should address the following:

  1. Determine the goals of the project.
    1. Why is the project worth doing?
    2. What is the main topic or topics that will be explored?
    3. What products, if any, will result from the project? For example, will the oral history recordings be used as the basis of a print publication, an online presentation, or an oral presentation at a family gathering? Or, are the recordings being made simply to have a family archival record?
  1. Learn about the work that is required for a typical oral history project.
    1. Introductory publications, such as the video An Oral Historian's Work: A Guide for Field Workers in Folklore and Oral History External Link by Edward D. Ives, provide a good orientation to the process of conducting oral history projects. Various websites, such as the Oral History Association External Link web site and the Veterans History Project web site also provide helpful information.
  1. Determine the scope of the project.
    1. A project's scope can include such things as its duration, its location and geographic range, and the approximate number of people to be interviewed from one or more categories. For example, the scope of a hypothetical project could be summarized as one that is six months in duration; located in San Pedro, California, and nearby communities; and concerned with interviewing all the male and female members of the family —approximately 12 in all —who moved from Taormina, Sicily, to San Pedro during the 1950s.
  1. Conduct preliminary research.
    1. Have members of the family or anyone else already conducted research on the topic or topics that interest you? If so, try to determine what work has been done and whether it makes sense for you to do additional work or, instead, choose a different topic that hasn’t been explored.
    2. Review published and unpublished material about your topic in order to learn more about it and, thus, better prepare for the interviews you will undertake. For example, if you intend to interview a family member about her experiences manufacturing military aircraft during World War II, it would be beneficial to read books and articles about the work women did in the wartime industries, especially those that relate to the manufacture of aircraft and the work performed at the particular plant where the relative worked.
    3. Determine whether there are members of the family who have the information you are interested in discovering, and, also, if they are willing and able to share it with you during a recorded interview. If no one has the information, or people are unable to share it for one reason or another, then the best course will be to select a different research topic.
  1. Determine who will work on the project.
    1. Who will conduct the interviews?
    2. Will it be necessary to have a project leader who will coordinate the work of interviewers and others involved, and be responsible for answering questions about the project?
    3. In addition to the interviewers, will it be necessary to have others who will operate audio or video recorders during the interviews?
    4. Who will organize the recordings and other materials that are generated by the project? It is important to label these materials, put them in a logical order, and place them in appropriate archival containers.
    5. If family members lack the crucial expertise needed to achieve the project’s goals, will it be necessary to hire a qualified person?
  1. Determine what will happen to the recordings and other documentary materials after the project comes to an end.
    1. Should the materials be preserved and made available to other members of the family and others? If so, would it be desirable to preserve the materials in a public repository, such as a library, archive or museum? It is important to discuss this with prospective repositories at the start of the project because they may have specific requirements, such as the use of certain media for interviews and the use of certain release forms that will be signed by interviewers and interviewees.
    2. It is strongly recommended that a repository be identified prior to begining the project as the long-term cost of preserving oral history recordings are very high.
  1. Create a release form.
    1. It is critical for oral history projects to use release forms for the purpose of confirming that interviewees have given their consent to be recorded and for the recordings to be archive and/or used for research. Examples of release forms can be found in the American Folklife Center’s publication Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman’s Introduction to Field Techniques, and also on the website of the Veterans History Project (153kb PDF. Select this link to go directly to the VHP release form.).
  1. Determine what equipment, supplies and other resources are needed.
    1. What kind of recording equipment will be used?
    2. What supplies will be needed?
    3. If interviewers need to travel, will they have access to automobiles or other appropriate means of transportation?
    4. Will there be a need for a secure storage space for the project’s equipment and supplies?
  1. Develop a timetable for the project.
    1. When will it start, when will it end and what are important milestones, or phases, along the way?
  1. Develop a budget.
    1. Create a detailed estimate of the cost of everything needed to accomplish the project. This includes the purchase or rental of recording equipment, supplies for the recording equipment, transportation expenses, archival supplies, office supplies, postage, professional fees, and the cost of creating any sort of product that is desired (e.g., print publication, online presentation, etc.).
  1. Identify sources of funds.
    1. If funds are needed to accomplish the project, where will they be obtained?
  1. Publicity.
    1. Consider ways to inform family members about the project. They might include an announcement sent by regular mail or email, and verbal announcements and hand-outs at family reunions and other gatherings.
Herman Williams and his grandson Nicolas
Herman Williams teaching his grandson, Nicolas, how to crack black walnuts. Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler, October 26, 1995. From the online presentation Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia.

Interviewing Tips

There are many publications that outline the techniques and principles of oral history work. The following tips about interviewing —the central technique concerned with recording oral history interviews —may serve as a helpful and concise summary.

1. Prepare for the interview by finding out about your interviewee, researching your topic or topics, testing your equipment, and organizing the questions that will help you plan what you want to cover during the interview.

2. Clearly and accurately explain to your interviewee who you are, why you want to do the interview, and what will happen to the information you collect from that person.

3. Be yourself. Don’t pretend to know more about something than you do know.

4. Never record secretly.

5. Before you start recording, try to find a location that’s conducive to producing a clear recording. For example, if the recording session is taking place at the interviewee’s home, choose a room that is farther away from the street to cut down on noise created by traffic.

6. At the start of the recording, make a brief opening announcement that specifies date and place of the interview, names of the interviewer and interviewee, and the general topic of the interview. For example:

Today is Thursday, September 18, 2008, and this is the start of an interview with Fred Johnson at his home at 601 McKinley Avenue, N.E., in Washington, DC. My name is Donna Johnson and I’ll be the interviewer. I’m Fred’s granddaughter and this interview is being done in connection with the history of the Johnson family. We’ll mainly be talking about my grandfather’s recollection of the family homestead in Litchfield, Connecticut.

This is very useful information that can be used to identify the basic circumstances of the interview later on.

7. Keep the audio recorder or video camera running throughout the interview. Don’t turn the machine on and off except when asked to do so or when an interruption requires it.

8. During the interview, encourage your interviewee by paying attention. Keep any time spent looking at a list of questions or adjusting the recording equipment to a minimum.

9. As a rule, keep your questions short. Avoid complicated multi-part questions.

10. Never ask a question you don’t understand.

11. Try to avoid asking questions that can be answered with a “yes”or a “no.”

12. Don’t ask leading questions that suggest answers. For example, instead of asking “Wasn’t Litchfield a great town to grow up in during the 1940s?,”ask: “How would you describe Litchfield as a place to grow up in during the 1940s?”

13. Try to keep your opinions out of the interview.

14. Don’t begin the interview with questions about controversial subjects.

15. Don’t interrupt your interviewee’s answers. Use non-verbal communication (eye-contact and nodding) to encourage him or her.

16. Use follow-up questions to elicit more detailed information. Useful follow-up questions include: When did that happen? Did that happen to you? What did you think about that? What are the steps in doing that? Can you give me an example of that? What happened next?

17. Be prepared to let your interviewee take the discussion off in different directions. This can sometimes lead to unexpected and exciting discoveries.

18. Make the recording as complete and accurate a record of the interview as you can. If you are using only an audio recorder, remember that it has no visual aspect. Therefore, if the interviewee makes a significant gesture —holds his hands apart and says, “It was about this long,”for example —be sure to follow up with a question that allows the information to be captured on the recording verbally: “So, was it about two feet long?”

19. Consider using photographs, maps, and other materials to elicit information during the interview.

20. Keep your interviews to a reasonable length. A typical length for an interview is between one and one and a half hours. It is the interviewer’s responsibility to determine if the interview should be concluded because the interviewee is becoming fatigued or for any other reason.

21. Put a brief closing announcement on the tape at the end of the interview. For example:

This is the end of the September 18, 2008, interview with Fred Johnson. The interviewer was Donna Johnson.

22. Carefully save the recording so it can be retrieved later on. This may involve placing a copy of a digital recording on a hard drive and giving it an accession number that will allow it to be readily identified out of the other interviews made during the project.

23. Use a release form. As mentioned earlier, this will clearly establish that the interviewee has agreed to take part in the interview and allow the recording used in accordance with the stated goals of the project.

24. Carefully review the recording of the interview later on in order to analyze the data, prepare for future interviews, and improve your interviewing technique.


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