Oral History Primer

Working Definition of Oral History

 

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According to the Oral History Association's website, "Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events." Oral history is both the oldest type of historical documenation and one of the most modern, initiated with reel-to-reel recorders at Columbia University in the 1940s and now taking advantage of 21st-century digital technologies.

In Doing Oral History, Donald Ritchie explains, “Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.  An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet."

Producing oral histories is a systematic attempt to enlist people with first-hand knowledge of special historical developments and experiences into recording their memories. 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 partial and viewed through the subjective screen of contemporary experience. Oral history interviews must be studied along with other contemporary sources for corroboration and authentication.

The Oral History Association (OHA) offers several resources covering many facets of oral history. OHA  offers a series of publications on community oral history, family oral history, oral history and the law, and other subjects, as well as an annual meeting with introductory, instructive workshops on interviewing, oral history and the law, audio and video preservation, and other subjects.

The following sections of this Oral History Primer focus on the interviewing methods and procedures necessary for producing excellent oral history interviews. 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,  what oral historian Michael Frisch has called "shared authority." 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.

We also recommend referring to the Oral History Association's Principles and Best Practices for Oral History.

H-Oralhist is a network for scholars and professionals active in studies related to oral history and is affiliated with the Oral History Association. It is a great place for oral historians to network with others who share their interests and to find the latest news, events, research, and resources.

Recording Equipment

A high-quality digital audio recorder with an external microphone is recommended;. Technology in this area is changing rapidly. Oral History in the Digital Age connects you to the latest information on digital technologies pertaining to all phases of the oral history process. This resource is a product of an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership project and a collaboration among the Michigan State University Digital Humanities Center, Matrix; the American Folklife Center (AFC/LOC), the Library of Congress; the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH); the American Folklore Society (AFS); the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries; and the Oral History Association.

Practice with your equipment before the interview and test out your equipment again 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 narrator all convey a sense of comfortableness and matter-of-factness which diminish stage-fright and allay anxiety.
 

Guidelines for Conducting Oral History Interviews
 

Preliminary Contact

In making the initial contact with a prospective narrator 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 narrator 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 narrator inspires confidence in the oral history endeavor. This can be outlined in a letter or email inviting the narrator to participae and further discussed in a pre-meeting before the actual interviewing sessions.

Pre-Interview Preparation

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 both in libraries and on the Internet (as appropriate) 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  recollections. 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, friends, and colleagues during this preparatory phase of the work.

 

The Topic Outline

Once you have determined the focus of your interview (whether it is autobiographical recollections of family history, or confined to a specific topic (university history, the history of an organic farm, the artistic career of a photographer, etc.) you can begin to sketch out a topic outline, comprised of the biographical and subject information you wish to formulate into topics. Under each broad topical area you will begin to think up more and more detailed subjects. 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 or a questionnaire; new topics introduced by the narrator should be incorporated in depth if they are of significance. You can use the outline to discuss with the narrator at the pre-meeting  what general areas you want to cover. This pre-meeting is also a way of breaking the ice and of empowering the narrator. The narrator may indicate  other related topics which they can think of will be useful for the interview, and so constructing the question outline becomes a collaborative endeavor.

Set-up arrangements should include a location in a quiet place where there won't be interruptions. The narrator's home-- familiar territory--usually enhances the session. Arrange a date and time and telephone or email the day before to remind the person of the session.

The Interview Session

Allow two hours for each session and no more than ninety minutes for the actual recorded portion of the session.

 

Laundry List

Remember to take along: paper and pens; recorder, batteries; an extension cord; extra memory cards, the topic outline and necessary research materials. It's sometimes a good idea to offer a cup of water because ninety minutes of talking can put strain on their voice.

 

Breaking the Ice

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. Make sure to turn off your cell phone and ask the narrator to turn off theirs, if possible.

Basic Interviewing Techniques

 

  1. Ask open-ended questions which can be developed at length by the narrator. Remember the ideal oral history interview is a guided monologue and not a conversation. The interviewer's unobtrusiveness and attention are essential.
  2. Start the session with easy and enjoyable kinds of topics and let the narrator run with them. In this way you will establish a pattern of in-depth responses and recollections. The narrator is then able to structure his/her narration of an experience in ways that indicate those factors that they feel are most significant or important. The person also overcomes the natural, initial anxiety once s/he has spoken at length about something s/he knows well. Often the narrator provides highly significant information on subjects you might never have thought of pursuing. By permitting the person to introduce a topic, you are less vulnerable to charges of having asked a "leading question," or of trapping a narrator into talking about sensitive matters. Sample question. Could you tell me something about your adolescent years? About how you started in this business? Instead of interrupting in the beginning of a general question of this kind, jot down questions on your note pad and listen attentively to the interviewee. When a natural pause is reached you may then say, "Your recollections have brought a great number of subjects/topics to my mind that I would like to know more about . . ." Never overwhelm with multiple questions. Take your time and never convey hurry or impatience.
  3. Learn to listen very carefully. You want the person to develop in as much detail as possible the area of inquiry. Convey your interest by establishing eye contact when appropriate. Don't appear to know everything but do be very well-informed. Indicate that you have read seriously and informed yourself about the subject but that the narrator obviously has specialized, first-hand information which you value. Don't be afraid of silence. Sometimes the narrator needs a few moments to think and collect their thoughts.
  4. Miscellaneous Interviewing Suggestions. Ask clear, brief open-ended questions requiring detailed answers, particularly at the beginning of the interview so that the narrator will be encouraged to relax and talk freely. Ask provocative questions which further your inquiry, but do not assume an adversarial role. The tone of voice and the way in which a question is phrased convey your intentions. If asking about mistakes or failures in a person's life or career (if pertinent to the inquiry) broach triumphs and successes first. When narrator goes off on a tangent steer him/her back on course gently and firmly. Refrain from making value judgments either implicitly within questions or explicitly. Deal with contradictions in testimony itself or in reference to other sources in a matter-of-fact way, such as: "I have read in such-and-such or someone else told me just the opposite of what you have just told me. Could you help me to resolve this contradiction, to explain this discrepancy?" Ask so-called naive questions; they convey to the narrator a sort of subtext, that you are ignorant, but not stupid, and want to know details. Remember: people love to tell about what they know and what they do; given a comfortable, relaxed interpersonal environment you can be of service in helping them to recapture their own memories, their original perceptions of events and experiences. The interaction which is the interview is a unique opportunity not to rehash old memories but to call up the past in fresh, actual recollections of and reflections on  the events themselves. 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.

 

Ethical and Legal Considerations

Another important consideration before the actual interview, is obtaining permission to publish the interview. By means of a release form, the interviewer insures both the integrity and continuity of an oral history project and safeguards each narrator's rights. Where a transcript is available, it is usual practice for the narrator 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, or put on the Internet, it is best to have the narrator 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 recording and the transcript can be erased or deleted 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. See  John A. Neuenschwander's Oral History and the Law for model release agreements and much more in-depth information on the legal and ethical issues affecting oral history.

It is common practice to give the narrator a copy of his/her recording or a copy of the transcript as a gesture in exchange for their significant investment of time and work in the oral history collaboration.  Inquire about diaries, letters, photographs or other historical materials which the narrator might wish to share with you and/or donate to your archive. One must exercise discrimination in collecting such materials, but often photographs can be scanned, 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.

 

Post-Interview Activities

 

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 fifty pages of transcript, and four to six 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 oral histories, is an acceptable alternative for making oral history collections usable for researchers. By using the digital counter found on transcription 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 narrator 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

A procedure should be established for placing oral histories 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, digital preservation, etc.

Not only are oral histories useful for scholarly researchers, but they also serve as a unique local resource for educational purposes in our public schools; the study of important 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 histories 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 of history could be significantly enriched if they had a high-quality collection of oral histories from which to learn about both local history and the influence of national trends on their community.

 

Updated August 2013 by Irene Reti, Director, Regional History
Project