An oral history is a written
transcript of an oral interview. It focuses on the PERSONAL
history of the person being interviewed, and while it may include
‘historical” references to such events as wars and elections, it tends
to focus on the personal day-to-day life of an individual. Information
such as the cost of daily necessities, fashions, music, books enjoyed,
dating practices, working conditions, stories of school and family
life are an integral part of a good oral history.
Interacting with history
While the person you interview
may have lived during the Depression or have fought in Korea, it is
less likely she was present in Dallas when President Kennedy was shot.
Events like this one were major media events that changed the culture
of the country and sometimes changed people's consciousness. In other
words, there have been certain events in history that changed our
view of who we are individually and as U.S. citizens.
This is an important distinction
to remember. You will need to know the personal level of involvement
of the person you interview and plan your
For this project you are to interview a woman or
man who lived through the time period you are researching. You will
be asking her/him many questions about her/his life, so it is best
if all of you are comfortable. You may wish to choose someone
in your family or a close family friend. However, you may also be
meeting and getting to know someone new who has offered to help with
Take this experience as an opportunity
not only to come to understand history better but also to get to know
another person better. Generally, when we come to know others on a
deeper level, we also learn more about ourselves.
Remember that no matter who
you interview, you must respect the person who is willingly sharing
his time and the story of his life with you.
Steps to Follow
You must first research
the time period you are doing your project on. You can use
the library, historical society/museum, Internet, newspaper archives,
Then you must develop a
set of questions that you intend to ask this person. Write
questions that focus on her/his life. Do not interview your person
until you have had your questions reviewed by your teacher. Check
the calendar for the due date for these questions.
For help, review FAQ
You must send or take the
Request for Interview form to your person
before the interview.
Set up a time and place
for the interview. Focus on what is convenient for your interviewee
instead of what is convenient for you. If you need transportation,
arrange this with your parents formally. Do not expect them to
drive you somewhere at the last minute.
Dress nicely for your appointment.
Be sure that you and your partner have everything you need: tape
recorder, camera, paper and pen, set of questions, etc.
Introduce yourselves and
thank your person for his/her time (even if it is your relative,
While you are interviewing
the person using the questions
you developed, make sure you document his/her responses. (We
suggest you use a tape recorder). When things come up that you
didn't anticipate but that seem helpful, continue. If the train
of thought starts to get way off track, be tactful in getting
back to where you need to be in your interview.
You need to get the
Interview Release form signed also.
Before you leave, be sure
to thank your person. Also ask if it will be all right to meet
again if you have more questions. It might also be acceptable
to use the telephone for a follow up interview. However, this
may not work well for all people. Think of their convenience and
not your own.
After the interview is completed,
write down what you believe are the most important parts of it.
This will help you understand where to start when you begin your
transcript. When you get to the transcript, if you find that there
are further questions you have, make a new list of questions and
contact your interviewee for a second interview.
Work on your transcript
as soon as possible after the interview while it is fresh
in your minds. If you wait too long, you will forget important
Your questions are a guide
– NOT the law. The best way to conduct an oral history is
to ask a question and then let the person TALK. You do not
have to ask every question: it’s best to let the memories and
enthusiasm of the person being interviewed take over. Some
of the best stories and “history” are revealed this way.
Make sure to write down
your impressions of the person, setting, and experience of interviewing.
Usually you will remember the most vivid details right after the
interview, but forget them after awhile.
It is so important for you
to be accurate. Tape record your interview. But also, take careful
notes, both of you. Use quotation marks around things that your
interviewee says. Ask him/her to repeat what he/she said if necessary.
You would not want to misquote or misrepresent what someone said.
If you don't understand,
respectfully ask for clarification.
Tips for Creating
The following questions may
or may not be applicable to your interview.
You should ask any questions
that you think will help you gather important information.
Questions should be open
ended. "How" or "why" questions are good ones.
Avoid asking any question
that can be answered with "yes" or "no."