Producing oral history documents is a systematic attempt to enlist significant people with first-hand knowledge of special historical developments and experiences into recording their memoirs while they are still able to do so effectively, that is, with sufficient powers of recall. Oral history is spoken history, subject to all the biases and vagaries inherent in human recall; yet it is not substantially different from other historical sources (diaries, correspondence, official documents, newspapers, photographs, etc.) which are distorted, partial, and viewed through the screen of contemporary experience. Oral history data must be subjected to the same tests of evidence as other sources, examined along with other contemporary sources for corroboration and authentication. The primary value of oral history testimony is its usefulness in social history, for reconstructing the fabric of daily life since the turn-of-the-century, and for documenting the mundane details of family and community life for which written evidence is often scarce. The following sections of this Oral History Primer focus on the interviewing methods and procedures necessary for producing oral history documents of value for future generations. Adhering to these guidelines will assure the beginning interviewer at least some measure of success and a sense of confidence in carrying out what is a complicated collaboration, an oral history interview. Technique provides a kind of scaffolding; as one gains experience in the art of listening and in trusting one's judgment during an interview, improvisation and spontaneity can emerge, and the mechanical details will more and more take care of themselves if they are once mastered. You will develop your own style of interviewing, of being of service to your narrator in this endeavor to recapture memories of the past.
A high-quality digital audio recorder with an external microphone is recommended;. Technology in this area is changing rapidly; please see the Oral History Association's website under "Technology" http://www.oralhistory.org/ for more information. Test out your equipment just prior to the interview session. Take along extension cords and fresh batteries. Your own confidence in the equipment and the ease with which you go about setting it up in the presence of the interviewee all convey a sense of comfortableness and matter-of-factness which diminish stage-fright and allay anxiety.
In making the initial contact with a prospective interviewee be certain to make a clear presentation of the purpose and nature of the interview. One need not give lengthy explanations but should inform the interviewee of the time investment involved, of the general areas to be covered, how the interview will be conducted and what will be done with the recording/transcript, how it will be used and for what purposes. Being explicit and direct with the prospective interviewee inspires confidence in the oral history endeavor.
The interviewer should have a sound general background in the subject or topics to be explored. If the interview is to focus, for example, on the career of a retired attorney, fireman, teacher, or physician, during the 1930's, and the changes in those fields since that period, the interviewer should do enough background reading and research to have some notion of the major trends and highlights in each field. Without any background the interviewer cannot ask the types of questions that will elicit the most pertinent information possessed by the interviewee. Sufficient preparation spells the difference between a valuable and a poor interview. Consult written histories, journal articles, autobiographies, diaries, scrapbooks, newspapers, trade journals, family histories, relatives and friends during this preparatory phase of the work.
Once you have determined the focus of your interview (whether it is autobiographical recollections of family history, or confined to a specific topic (municipal politics, the history of a real estate firm, the work experience of an individual, etc.) you can begin to sketch out a question outline, comprised of the biographical and subject information you wish to formulate into questions. Under each broad topical area you will begin to think up more and more detailed questions. This working outline will give you confidence during the interview and will keep the interview moving in the direction you want to go. The outline is not, however, an inflexible blueprint; new topics introduced by the interviewee should be incorporated in depth if they are of significance. You can use the outline to inform the interviewee in advance of what general areas you want to cover. Often a copy of the outline given a week or so in advance of the actual interview will stimulate an interviewee's memories. But indicate that any other related topics which s/he can think of will be useful for the interview.
Set-up arrangements should include a location in a quiet place where there won't be interruptions. The interviewee's home-- familiar territory--usually enhances the session. Arrange a date and time and telephone the day before to remind the person of the session.
Allow two hours for each session and no more than 90 minutes for the actual recorded portion of the session.
Remember to take along: paper and pens; batteries; an extension cord; question outline and necessary research materials.
When you arrive and are setting up recording equipment, chat informally to establish rapport, but move as quickly as possible to the interview itself without beginning abruptly. Breaking the ice is an essential phase of an interview.
Another important consideration before the actual interview, is obtaining permission to use the information in the interview. By means of a simple release form, the interviewer insures both the integrity and continuity of an oral history project and safeguards each interviewee's rights. Where a transcript is available, it is usual practice for the interviewee to read through the entire manuscript and indicate whether any portions need to be sealed (kept confidential) for a stated length of time. When an indexed recording will be made available to students, library patrons, or scholars, it is best to have the interviewee sign a release form at the conclusion of the interview session(s). In this latter situation--where a written manuscript is not available for perusal--it is the responsibility of the interviewer to pay heed to possible libelous statements or difficult statements and bring them to the narrator's attention; portions of the interview tape can be erased if libelous, or the entire tape sealed if information is sensitive.
Most interviews do not contain sensitive personal information and in most cases the signing of a release form is a simple task. A sample text for a release form should include the following explicit directions:
I hereby give and grant to [ ] my recorded memoir as a donation for such scholarly and educational purposes as [ ] shall determine. It is expressly understood that the full literary rights of this memoir shall pass to [ ] and that no rights whatsoever are to vest in my heirs now or at my death.
Signature of Interviewee
Address of Interviewee
Signature of Interviewer
Address of Interviewer
Date of Agreement
Listing of subjects covered in recorded memoir (can be index listing) It is common practice to give the interviewee a copy of his/her recorded memoir or a copy of the transcript as a gesture in exchange for their significant investment of time and work in the oral history collaboration. Memorabilia Inquire about diaries, letters, photographs or other historical materials which the interviewee might wish to share with you. One must exercise discrimination in collecting such materials, but often photographs can be copied, or if the materials have real value for archives or institutional collections, one can go to librarians for advice on acquiring them. Often they can considerably illuminate an oral history memoir.
Note-taking during the interview session can be helpful if it is not distracting. One can jot down names and places where the spelling is uncertain and ask for correct spellings at the conclusion of the session. Jotting down questions which come up unexpectedly, can contribute to accuracy and thoroughness.
Transcribing and/or Indexing Oral History Recordings
Due to the costly and time-consuming process of verbatim transcription of recording, in which one hour of recorded interview equals approximately 50 pages of transcript, and 4-6 hours of labor, some volunteer projects have chosen to provide detailed indexes for each recording. A topical index for each recording, and an ongoing general index for a collection of recorded memoirs, is an acceptable alternative for making oral history collections usable for researchers. By using the digital counter found ontranscription software the indexer can time stamp with accuracy the location on the recording of a certain portion of discussion on each topic covered in the interview. so, if an interviewee discusses her childhood, career as a photographer, family history, service in World War II, and work for the U.S. government, each period and topic in the session can be noted and retrieved easily with such an indexing system.
Establishing an Oral History Archives/Depository for Recorded Memoirs
A procedure should be established for placing oral history memoirs in local public libraries or some other permanent place where they will be safe, retrievable for use by students and researchers, and correctly stored, (temperature control, etc.) minimizing deterioration of the recording.
Much thinking needs to go into the establishment of an archival solution to the increasing number of oral history memoirs produced in this county. Not only are oral history memoirs useful for scholarly researchers, but they also serve as a unique local resource for educational purposes in our public schools; the study of important 20th century developments and events--the Great Depression, World War II, the environmental movement, the women's movement etc. --can be illuminated by the use of oral history documents which ground these large scale events in the historical reality at a local level. Textbook history is too often a pre-digested, synthetic version of the past, devoid of humanity and flesh-and-blood reality. Students in this community could be significantly enriched if they had a high-quality collection of oral history memoirs from which to learn about both local history and the influence of national trends on their community.