This RESOURCE page offers a place for students, teachers, and researchers to begin working with oral history interviews as historical evidence.
1. Oral History Packet
2. Three Ps
3. Interview Checklist
4. Consent Form Page 1 ( English | Vietnamese )
5. Consent Form Page 2 ( English | Vietnamese )
6. Narrator-Interviewer Agreement
7. Photo Consent and Log
8. Biographical Survey ( English | Vietnamese )
9. Interview Questions ( English | Vietnamese )
10. Proper Names
11. Sample Field Notes
12. Sample Transcript
12a. Transcribing Guidelines
13. Sample Time Log
14. Sample Abstract & Keywords
15. Sample Life Map
16. File Naming Guidelines
17. Final Checklist
BASIC GUIDELINES FOR CONDUCTING ORAL HISTORIES
Dr. Linda Trinh Vo
Oral histories can serve multiple purposes, such as to preserve a life story for an archive, research project, journalism article, or fiction or non-fiction story. Collecting first person testimonials or narratives can be used as evidence to prove or support an argument, to provide correctives to historical inaccuracies, to lend more substantive details to an event, or to share stories about the human experience.
The individuals you will be interviewing for your Oral History project oftentimes have vast life experiences spanning decades and a wide array of opinions on multiple subjects. Whether you are collecting their life story from birth to the present day or asking them for information on specific events, there is only so much information you can glean in a one-to-two-hour interview. This means you have to be both focused and targeted in the information you want to gather; but you should also be open in your interview process, making yourself available to new perspectives they may share with you. This may sound contradictory, but it is not uncommon for narrators to redirect our projects and make us reevaluate our assumptions and rethink our arguments. More importantly, spend the time to do the necessary preparation work before you conduct the interview so that you will be productive and generate relevant information during the interview itself.
CHOOSING A NARRATOR
When selecting a narrator, you should consider who you will interview and why. What will they bring to your project and what do you know about them? Ask your instructors, relatives, and friends for possible individuals to interview; and if someone declines, do not be discouraged, move on and ask the next person. Gather information about potential narrators online from individuals who may know them, or have a brief conversation with the potential narrator in person or by email or phone. Get to know something about the person – where they were born and raised, their occupation or organization, and other vital aspects of their experiences – to make sure they are appropriate for your project. The more research you conduct ahead of time about your narrator and topic, the easier it will be to compose questions that are suited for your narrator and your project. That preparation will also help you ask the necessary follow up questions during the interview. If you are unable to glean information about your narrator ahead of time, at least make sure they are well suited for your project.
We oftentimes conclude it is easier to interview someone you know rather than a perfect stranger. Actually there are pros and cons to each. Interviewing someone you know gives you advantages, since you are already familiar with their background and you have a mutual level of comfort with one another. However, it may be challenging because they assume you are familiar with them and inadvertently do not provide you with in-depth material. Or they may be embarrassed to share sensitive information with a close relative or friend. Interviewing a stranger can be awkward; however, they may reveal information with you more readily, since they do not think they will see you again. It may seem counterintuitive, but interviewers can feel more comfortable asking personal or probing questions to a stranger than someone they know well.
PREPARING FOR AN INTERVIEW
Make an interview appointment, and give yourself 2-3 hours so you can factor in time for transportation, greeting, setting up the interview space, conducting the interview, looking at photos and documents, and saying good-bye. Prior to the interview, 1) ask your narrator if they have photos or documents to show you during the interview that will help you understand more about their lives or the specific event, 2) inform them about your project and what questions you plan to ask them during the interview, and 3) request permission to record them beforehand.
You can let them know that recordings capture more accurate information than note taking and that you will need direct quotes for your project. It is best not to rely solely on note taking for your oral history interview since it can be inefficient. You will not be able to take notes fast enough and will miss important aspects of the interview; and when you are trying to write diligent notes, you will have difficulty asking follow up questions.
Make sure you find a quiet, uninterrupted place to conduct the interview, where there is privacy, and let the narrator know this is a requirement ahead of time. Microphones can pick up background or ambient noise, so having it absolutely quiet is important, otherwise you will not be able to hear their voice on the recording. You can conduct the interview in a space familiar to the narrator to make them feel more comfortable. Daytime interviews are recommended, since narrators are more alert and less tired during this time. Be professional and avoid distractions. There is nothing worse than being at a great point during the interview and having your phone ring, so ask them to turn off the sound on their phones too.
If your oral history is connected to your research project, try to have a clear formulation of your working thesis or argument and complete some research before embarking on the interview. Even if the narrator is not connected to your research project, you should do some investigative research prior to conducting the oral history. Learn more about historical moments relevant to your project and the person you are interviewing. For example, if they are a war veteran, learn more about the war they served in; if they are an immigrant or refugee, learn more about the general migration experiences of that group. To use a sports analogy, it does not make sense for you to interview a football player if you have never watched a football game or know nothing about the rules of the game. Even if you have never played football, watching games and learning the rules of the game, plus familiarizing yourself about the connection between high school and professional players and the history of the creation of the football industry will make you a better interviewer. Once you have completed the research, you can prepare your questions accordingly.
DEVELOPING YOUR INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
After doing some preliminary research, you can prepare written questions, organized by categories that follow some kind of chronological order. Ask the basic journalistic questions – what, when, where, how, and why – but also create questions that are tailored specifically for your narrator. Before the interview, review your questions multiple times, organizing similar questions together and highlighting those questions most essential to your research project, in case you run out of time to ask all your questions. Follow these tips as you frame your questions:
- Questions are best kept brief and open-ended. Your goal is to allow your narrator space to tell their own story, not to respond with one-word answers.
- Start the interview with some “warm up” questions. Usually you start with asking your narrator for their full name, year of birth, and childhood experiences. Some individuals will be hesitant to speak extensively about their childhood and will focus more on their adult years, while others will have extensive stories to tell about their formative years into adulthood. How much time you spend on this depends on the age of your narrator and if these early years are crucial to the information you need to collect. Once they feel comfortable with the interview format, you can then move onto investigative or controversial questions.
- Avoid being suggestive in your questions. Do not ask, “Were you a good student?” but rather ask, “What kind of student were you in high school?” If you know they faced hardships as a child, then you can start off this section on a positive note (“What were your fondest or best memories as a child?”) before you move into deeper questions about a difficult period in their life.
- Be careful about making your questions too general or broad. Instead of “Tell me about your life as an immigrant,” you should create questions that will solicit specific answers about their life in their homeland, what led them to leave, how they came to the U.S., and how they rebuilt their lives. You can ask them “When did you first think about leaving your country?” “Exactly how did you leave?” “Why did you choose to come to America?” “Did you have any relatives or friends here?” “What did you bring with you when you left?” “Who came with you?” “What was the saddest part of leaving your homeland?” “Did you know English when you arrived?” “Who helped you resettle when you arrived in the U.S.?” “What was the hardest part of rebuilding your new life here?” “What surprised you most about America?” “Who were the first friends you made?” “What do you miss about your homeland and have you visited your homeland?” It may be informative to ask them descriptive or interpretive questions that recreate their settings, such as “Can you describe your home?” or “Can you describe your neighborhood?”
- In the interview, the issue is not the questions you ask, but how you ask them. Pay attention to how you phrase questions. Be cautious when utilizing contentious or sensitive language, since it can be off-putting to the narrator or make them less receptive to answering your questions. Use common terms or concepts associated with the field or topic, which can be acquired when you conduct your background research.
- Sometimes it helps to rehearse the questions by testing them on a friend to ensure that your wording is clear. Do not ask multiple part questions at once. Rather, ask succinct questions, moving from one question to the next.
PREPPING TECH EQUIPMENT
Make sure you test your equipment and know how to use it ahead of time. Your batteries should be fully charged, and you should bring a back up battery or an AC adaptor with an extension cord. Test the microphone to determine the best place to position your recording device. Make sure you have sufficient space on your SD memory card. If you are videotaping and are using a camcorder, place your tripod in a good position and focus at the appropriate distance from the narrator, who should be seated during the interview. It is recommended that you have back up audio recording equipment. You can use your laptop or phone to save two recordings of an interview, in case one fails or is erased. Nothing is worse than finding out your recording is useless because you did not turn the equipment on correctly or your microphone was not properly positioned.
Position yourself so you are facing the narrator as directly as possible and can also check or monitor your equipment. Let the narrator know you will have to check it periodically and that they should continue talking as you do so. Remember to arrive early, so that you have time to familiarize yourself with the space and give yourself adequate set up time.
CONDUCTING THE INTERVIEW
It is natural to be nervous the day of the interview. You will be concerned with ensuring your equipment works, if the narrator will answer your questions, and if you will be attentive enough to ask follow up questions. Keep these tips in mind to ensure that all runs smoothly:
- Narrators who are not public figures can be very anxious about being interviewed and audio or video recorded. When you meet them for the interview, do not treat this as a stiff business transaction, but convey a friendly attitude and show appreciation for their time. Building a rapport with them at the beginning goes a long way toward making them feel comfortable before the interview begins.
- Be flexible during the interview. You do not have to ask every question in the exact order or use the exact wording you wrote down. Tweak your questions as needed. Be an active listener to their answers and ask follow up questions. Many times, interviewers are so eager to move onto the next question that they miss opportunities to ask follow up questions. One regret most interviewers have when they listen to their interviews is realizing that the narrator mentioned something significant, even in passing, but they failed to ask follow up questions. The narrator may assume you know about an event or issue; but even if you do, you should still ask them to provide their own interpretation. Do not hesitate to ask questions such as, “Can you explain what happened further?” or “Can you provide some specific examples?” Consider asking follow up questions that elicit their feelings, opinions, or perspectives, such as “How did you feel when that happened?” or “What did you think when that happened?”
- Narrators often go on tangents. Since you are asking them to reflect on their life experiences, they encounter memories they have not thought about for years. Some tangents are extremely useful and allow for more insight into their lives. Those should not be interrupted. Other times, the conversation devolves into details that are irrelevant and take up precious time, so politely interrupt them when they pause and redirect them by asking your original question or asking another question.
- If the narrator becomes emotional or cries, do not panic or ask if they want to stop the interview. Let the recording continue and give them the time to pause and collect themselves and continue their train of thought. If they ask you to stop the recording while they compose themselves, do respect their wishes. It is fine for you to say, “I’m sorry to hear about this” or “That seems like a very difficult time for you,” so that you acknowledge their emotions rather than ignoring them altogether. Sometimes, individuals want to tell you more, and you should allow for this. Other times, you can gently ask them to tell you more, but if they do not want to discuss it further, move on.
- The tone you set for the interview is important, as well as keeping your reactions in check. During the interview, refrain from making judgmental statements that show your approval or disapproval of what they are saying. They may make statements that you disagree with, so do your best to remain neutral. Your job as an interviewer is to understand their perspective, so this is the time to ask investigative questions that reveal why and how they hold these opinions. You should also ask these inquisitive questions when you agree with them and not assume that their interpretation is the same as yours.
- Some will encourage you to view the interview process as a conversation; however, be cautious. The focus of an oral history is to gather information from your narrator. So while you may be asking questions in a conversational manner, rather than rigidly reading questions from a piece of paper in front of you, your role is to be an enthusiastic listener. Make sure you do not use this valuable time to tell them your story and opinions. And if they ask, provide a quick response and redirect the questions back to them.
- Avoid making audible sounds that affirm you are listening since the recording equipment picks up repetitive noises, which can be disruptive. You can be encouraging by nodding or smiling to show you are actively listening. Sometimes, narrators feel like interviewers are looking for a particular answer from them, so non-verbal responses can reassure them that the interview is going as planned.
- Do not worry about long pauses during the interview. Moments of silence are fine. Some individuals speak quickly and others slowly; some speak in paragraphs filled with details; others provide brief answers. The latter is more challenging since you will have to ask more follow up questions. Be patient and avoid completing their sentences or thoughts. It is useful to bring paper and a writing instrument to take notes of significant points and follow up questions that you can ask them once they finish their thoughts, but avoid using your laptop for this, since it can make narrators uneasy and can be distracting. You will find that individuals will mention multiple ideas or issues in one answer, so be prepared to make quick decisions regarding whether or not you want to ask follow up questions at that point or later in the interview. For example, you are capturing earlier parts of their life, but they bring up a contemporary experience you were hoping to ask them about later in your interview. Go with the flow and do what you think makes the most sense.
- Be aware of your time limitations; if your interview is planned for one hour, divide your questions into four sections that will last fifteen minutes each. During the interview, you should be able to gauge the time so you will know if you need to speed up or insert more follow up questions.
- Let your narrator know when you only have a few questions left. One of your last questions should be “Is there anything you would like to add that I did not ask you about or that we have not discussed?” Then thank them for conducting the interview with you and let them know you may have follow up questions via phone or email, so you may contact them. If appropriate, ask them if you can take a few photos of them; and if it is in their space, capture as much of it as possible in the background. It is always nice to send a follow up email or note to thank them for their time; and, if appropriate, send them a copy of your final project.
- Before you leave your interview, ensure that your narrator has had opportunity to read and sign the consent forms linked to the Oral History prompt. You will turn these consent forms in with your final story.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND DURING THE INTERVIEW
Human memories are fragile and complex. Close your eyes and describe your first day of college. Your memories may be vivid now, but imagine having to do this ten or more years from now, and being asked to describe in detail the people you interacted with, what you did, and what you felt. As with all memories, they will likely become hazy with time. How individuals absorb a memory can be shaped by multiple factors, from their age, gender, and ethnicity, as well as how they recall or describe these memories over the course of their lives. An especially traumatic experience, particularly one that a person has tried to block out of their minds, can distort their memories too.
When you are capturing one person’s recollections; and regardless if it conflicts with others’ depictions, you should regard it as their account of an event or experience. You should not approach these partial accounts as your narrator intentionally trying to deceive you. Rather, keep in mind the complexities of recalling memories. Be especially careful of writing about your narrator’s individual memory as representing a whole group, unless you interview multiple individuals and they all repeat similar stories.
For those integrating their oral history into their larger research project, oral histories can help to verify an event and may be corroborated with photographs, documents, diaries, public records, news articles, documentary videos, and statistical records, all elements that help to recreate shared events. If the narrator has collected a few photos or documents, ask them to discuss those items during the interview. If the narrator has a large number of items, you can wait until the end of the interview and ask their permission to scan or take photos of them. All these primary sources tell part of a larger story, but they can be interpreted differently. Individuals who witness an event simultaneously may have different ways of describing or interpreting it depending on their position or vantage point. For that reason, scholars of history can agree that an event occurred; however, they may differ on the causes or consequences of an event.
RECONSTRUCTING THE INTERVIEW
You can transcribe the full audio recording, verbatim, meaning writing down every single word spoken by both you and the narrator. Or you can listen to the whole interview and transcribe only the selections that will be incorporated into your reconstruction. For those conducting an interview in a language other than English, it is best to transcribe the interview first, and then translate from the transcription; yet, it is also possible to do a direct translation. You can use these transcriptions to paraphrase the narrator’s life story or include direct quotations from your oral history interview in your reconstruction.
Although there are multiple steps involved in conducting an oral history, the experience is often memorable and transformative. Rarely do we get a chance to ask substantial and personal questions about intimate human experiences, which have been shaped by larger cultural, economic, political, and social forces. You will find that seemingly ordinary people have extraordinary histories and meaningful viewpoints.