Create an oral history

Before written communication evolved the only way history could be passed down was through the spoken word. But even when written communication became possible the oral tradition continued and so many stories were passed down through generations and communities by word of mouth. Although these days the oral tradition may be less significant there are still many people who have interesting stories to tell and one of the best ways to capture these stories is to create an oral history.

Recording equipment

You don’t need expensive equipment to record an oral history interview. For example, you could use a basic digital voice recorder or the audio recording feature on a mobile phone. The most important thing is that you know how to operate your recording equipment and that you check it is working properly and set up correctly on the day of the interview. You don’t want to distract yourself or your interviewee with irritating technical problems or worse still fail to record the interview.

Decide where to meet

Arrange to meet your interviewee somewhere which is quiet and where you both feel relaxed and comfortable. It should also be somewhere where you won’t feel rushed and where there aren’t too many distractions. This could be at your own home, at the home of person you are going to interview or somewhere completely neutral. Background noise can be a real problem when you are recording an interview, so try to avoid locations where you might be interrupted by telephones, traffic noise, pets, household appliances or anything else that could affect your recording.

What to prepare in advance

Although it is a good idea to plan in advance what questions or topics you want to cover during your interview, it is also important to give the person you are interviewing the chance to talk about what is significant or important to them. You can rein in your interviewee if you think they have wandered too far away from the original subject or topic but equally don’t miss out on unexpected gems just because you feel obliged to stick to your plan.

How to ask questions

The best way to get someone talking freely is to ask them open-ended questions – i.e. questions which don’t require a simple yes or no answer or a quick, short response. By all means start off your interview with some straightforward biographical-type questions that will help put your interviewee at ease but then move on to questions which probe for more information. These types of sentences could start with something like:

Tell me more about…
Describe…
How…?
Why…?

Avoid asking leading questions. Your interviewee should be free to express their own opinions and tell their own stories without being influenced by your opinions or bias.

And finally, structure your questions so as they cover just one topic at a time. Compound questions which include a number of topics linked by ‘and’ can be confusing and are much harder to answer.

Be a good listener

Although it is up to you to guide the interview and provide prompts when necessary, it is also important to be a good listener. Show you are interested by smiling and nodding and interjecting with occasional comments such as ‘that is really interesting’ or ‘how fascinating – do tell me more’.

Transcribing your recorded interview

If you are concerned that the technology you used to make your recording may eventually become obsolete, then the best way of preserving it is to produce a written transcript. Although most digital recording devices make it very easy to transfer recordings onto a computer, transcribing a recorded interview into text can be very time-consuming. Look online for some transcription tools/apps (these include voice recognition applications) to help make the process a bit easier.

Once you have converted your recorded interview into text you may need to do some editing. Even though you should aim to produce a text version which reads and flows well don’t lose the unique elements that make the voice of your interviewee instantly recognisable.

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Create an oral history to capture the stories people have to tell
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