Planning an oral history interview – how to get started
If you are new to oral history the first thing to do before you start planning an oral history interview is to be clear about the topic or theme you plan to focus on. Only then will you know which people to approach to see if they would be willing to do an interview.
For family history researchers this may be an area of your research where there are living family members who could make a valuable contribution to your research. However, the scope for oral history is much broader than this. For example, you could focus on the people where you live or where you work. Or you could look for local interest groups, voluntary and professional organisations and businesses, church groups, schools, museums, drama, dance, art or music groups, local history groups, clubs for older people and so on. Within any of these you may find members who have memories and experiences they would like to share.
Finding people to interview
Depending on what theme you have chosen, contact the relevant group(s), or ask individual family members, friends, local residents, work colleagues. To reach a wider audience use social media or write an article for your local newspaper or magazine asking for volunteers. Put up notices in community and adult education centres, libraries, museums—anywhere you think potential interviewees might visit.
Do your research
A good oral history interview depends on your knowledge of the topic you have chosen and the person you are going to interview so make sure you do some thorough background research before you start preparing your list of interview questions. Check on dates, events, people and any other significant details to ensure that you know as much as you can about your interviewee and the topic of your interview.
What questions to ask
An oral history interview is not a conversation between two people nor is it like a news interview which is generally conducted as a quick fire question and answer session. In an oral history interview the person being interviewed takes centre stage and your role is to facilitate their story by asking the right questions and, when necessary, following their lead.
An oral history interview is not just about facts and names and dates. Details like this, which can even vary between two people recounting the same story, can be unreliable. If you want accurate facts then use more reliable sources such as birth, death and marriage certificates, census records, historical records and so on.
Katherine Scott Sturdevant in her book Bringing Your Family History to Life through social history says: “Do not approach an interview hoping for definitive factual information, but rather for experiential accounts, impressionistic descriptions, attitudes and perceptions and family tradition. The oral historian knows that an interview’s treasure is not the trivia of who, or where, but the what, why and how of family tradition.”
The questions you ask will determine how much people open up so don’t ask questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Ask open-ended questions which invite thought, consideration and a personal opinions. For example, rather than just asking someone if they lived through a significant historical event, ask them if or how the event influenced or affected their life.
Use your list of oral history questions as a guide
It is useful to have an idea about what questions you want to ask but don’t be restricted or limited by them. The most successful oral history interviews give people the confidence to be themselves without being constrained by too many questions. You could, however, start with some simple questions (such as some basic biographical facts) that put your interviewee at ease and help to develop a good rapport with you which will enable you to lead into more searching questions.
“The best interviews flow naturally and are not rehearsed. Don’t over-prepare. Don’t use a script. Tape recorded life stories should be lively, spontaneous and vivid.” Oral History Society
Take the lead from your interviewee
Although you are the interviewer be prepared to take the lead from your interviewee. For example, follow up on topics touched on by your interviewee even if they aren’t on your list of questions.
Avoid interrupting your interviewee when they are speaking—if an idea springs to mind make a note of it and bring it up when there is a natural break in the conversation. Similarly, don’t jump in the moment the person stops speaking. Give them time to gather their thoughts—they may still have more to say.
Don’t be afraid to ask a question more than once if you think your interviewee hasn’t revealed as much as you may be think they could.
Be a good listener and look interested—your body language will convey this. You can also give encouragement by saying things such as ‘that is really interesting’ but don’t overdo it. However, don’t be afraid to interrupt if you feel there is something that needs further explanation or clarification.
For almost 50 years the Oral History Society (OHS) has played a leading role in the development of oral history, both in the UK and around the world.
In addition to providing a wealth of information and advice on all aspects of oral history, the OHS organises an annual conference and runs a series of events and online courses. The current online courses include: Introduction to Oral History, Designing and Planning your Oral History Project and Developing your Oral History Skills.
One final word
Planning an oral history interview takes time and effort but it will help to ensure that you get the very best from of your interviewee.