The following is an outline of the points worth considering if you are planning to do any oral history. They are mainly aimed at community groups, but are applicable to anyone wanting to do oral history, and can also be found in an abbreviated form on our information sheet 'How Do I Conduct An Oral History Interview?'. EMOHA's 'Interviewing for Research' looks at these issues in more detail.
Planning a project.
Why are you doing it? Is oral history the best approach - don't forget your local records office and libraries.
What will the end result be? Your final outcome, and the date it needs to be produced, will determine the timescale and scope of your project.
How many people are involved? Realistically, how many people are able to spend the time preparing for and carrying out interviews? How many will they be able to do? Who will summarise or transcribe them (it can take five or six hours to transcribe one hour of an interview, summaries are quicker)? Who will be responsible for looking after your collection of interviews?
How much time/money do you have? Chances are that you won't be able to carry out a lot of interviews quickly - each interview will involve preliminary contacts, travelling, interviewing, summarising. Will you have to buy a recorder (or more than one)? If the interviews are to be transcribed this may cost money as well as taking time. Don't forget to budget for the cost of your final product and any other events or promotions along the way.
Who to interview? Try to interview as representative a cross section of people as possible - good gender balance, age range, quiet as well as vocal, successful/unsuccessful, leaders/observers etc.
Be realistic! There are few things worse than an unnecessarily over ambitious project which fails to deliver its promises and leaves disappointed people in its wake!
Word of mouth is usually the most effective way, but beware of getting people with similar backgrounds and stories.
Local interest groups are useful if your project is looking at particular topics e.g. veterans associations for ex-servicemen or women.
If it is the elderly you are after, centres such as Age Concern, local drop in clubs etc. may be able to help.
The Media - local newspapers and radio or TV may help you to contact people outside of your immediate area. 'Memory Lane' features are often very useful.
If your appeals are successful you may make more contacts than you are able to interview (a situation to be hoped for!). Be careful not to make any promises you can't keep. A simple explanation that you may not be able to interview everybody will avoid anyone feeling as if you have ignored them. This feeling can also be avoided by keeping people informed of your project's progress. You may want to accept written memories from those who can't be interviewed.
The first inclination for most projects is to grab the oldest member of the community before they die. While there is nothing wrong with this, you might want to cast your net wider. Broadly speaking there are two approaches to interviewing: looking at a person's whole life, or looking at specific topics. Clearly it will take longer to cover a life story in detail (if you finish after 45 minutes you have probably missed a few things), and you may well need more than one visit to do this.
However, most projects want to cover subjects like Childhood, School, WW2, Migration etc. which can be looked at in the context of an individual's life and experiences. If you are doing this, you may also want to consider how recent events and memories compare with older recollections. An example of this is our Toys and Games project, which benefitted from interviews with young people.
Try to be familiar with the subjects you will be dealing with, but beware of overpreparation. As an interviewer you should be able to ask the 'obvious' question.
As a group you can brainstorm the questions you want to ask, but be prepared to be flexible both in the interviews and during the project. You may want to review your progress as you go along. Try to structure questions chronologically (it's often easiest to remember things chronologically), but don't stick to them too rigidly; they are a means to an end, not the end itself. On a practical note, the margin of a questionnaire can also be used as a notepad if you don't have one.
If you're not sure what sort of questions you should be asking, have a look at this example of questions from the North Dakota State University's 'Germans from Russia Oral History Project' (it's a .pdf document). It was compiled in a similar way to a guide in Paul Thompson's book 'The Voice of the Past'.
Here we refer you to the equipment pages
on this website.
Before the Interview
Personal safety issues - let people know where you are going and when you expect to be back. If appropriate, know local bus routes or taxi numbers. If you feel uncomfortable at any time, be prepared to cut the interview short and leave. If you think there may be a need for it, consider support mechanisms such as feedback sessions or research diaries. Safety leaflets are available from police stations or from organisations like the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. There is also the EMOHA information sheet 'How Can I Be Safe While Interviewing?'.
Initial contact - whether you make a pre-interview visit or just
communicate by telephone or letter, it is important to have some sort
of preliminary contact. Your interviewee should be told about your project,
the date and place of the interview, the subjects to be covered, the fact
that you will be recording the interview and will need a signature at
the end, and the need for a quiet environment free of interruptions for
as long as you anticipate the interview will take. You may want to write
a follow-up letter of confirmation.
Equipment - make sure that it works, you know how to use it, and that you are carrying spare batteries, tapes, etc. Having a checklist is a good idea.
Getting There - it may sound ridiculous, but there will be no interview if you don't go to the right place at the right time. If you are travelling anywhere, have directions, take a map, and allow plenty of time for travel.
The Interview Environment
Probably the best environment for an interview is someone's home, but this isn't always possible. Wherever you are, position yourself and your interviewee so that you are sitting comfortably - not so close together that you infringe on their space, but not so far apart that you cannot make good eye contact with them. Be aware of extraneous noises - ticking clocks, gas fires, pets - and try to minimise their impact on the recording. Some noise sources can be removed or turned off, but if this isn't possible you will have to make sure the microphone is placed as close to the interviewee as possible.
If your interviewee is hard of hearing, speak slowly rather than loudly (make sure hearing aids have been turned on) and try to have light falling on your face to aid lip reading.
You may want to test your equipment - batteries can run out, connections can be loose - by asking for name and date of birth and then listening back to it to make sure all is well.
Listen and be interested - if you're not interested you shouldn't be doing the interview. By maintaining eye-contact you can show you are interested and encourage your interviewee with visual cues rather than speaking over the recording.
Keep questions short and incisive, clear and simple - if a question contains multiple points it is confusing and some parts may remain unanswered.
Ask 'open' rather than 'closed' questions. Easy to say but not always easy to do. An example of a closed question - a question which invites a yes/no answer - would be 'Did you feel bad?'. An 'open' question would be 'How did you feel?' followed up with, 'Why did you feel like that?' if necessary.
Avoid suggesting the answers (leading questions): 'How did you feel about working as a housemaid?' rather than 'It must have been awful having to be a servant', and 'Can you describe your childhood?' rather than, 'I suppose your childhood was poor and unhappy?'
Move from the general to the specific. You should establish the facts (who? what? where?), but the most interesting information often comes from asking how? and why?
Clarify odd words or things you are not sure about - phrases like 'cutting the vamp' (the boot and shoe trade). If you don't ask at the time you may never know!
Don't be afraid to ask, but don't interrupt or butt in. Make a mental or physical note to ask later. Particularly with older people and those who speak slowly, leave a pause at the end of their sentences as they may not have finished speaking.
Respect people's opinions even if you don't agree with them. This is not the time for you to debate your political or cultural opinions with someone. You can, of course, ask how and why people have come to form their views. It is often said that you should be 'critical but not confrontational'.
Be aware of tiredness - not just the exhausted 96 year old you have been grilling for three hours, but your own tiredness as well. Take a break or come back another day.
After the Interview
It is polite to accept hospitality!
Copyright and Ethics - if you intend to use the contents of the interview for any purposes, you will need the permission of the interviewee, and you should explain what possible uses the material may be put to (informed consent). Information about copyright and ethics can be found on the EMOHA information sheet 'Copyright and Ethics', and there is a thorough explanation at the Oral History Society website. As well as the example of a copyright/clearance form on the EMOHA information sheet, the OHS form can be found here.
Make sure the interviewee has contact details for you or your organisation. It is polite to offer the interviewee a copy of the recording, and if you are engaged in research you may send them a transcript of the interview and ask for comments. A 'thank you' letter is polite as well.
As for the recordings themselves, make copies and use these when writing
summaries/transcriptions. Never edit the original. Remove security tabs
or position sliders so the recording cannot be erased accidentally, keep
the original and the copy apart. Use permanent markers when writing information.
Keep the recordings in a safe environment: 18'C/65'F and 40-50% RH; cool,
dry, smoke-free, secure; away from magnetic sources and lightning conductors.
You will also want to consider some sort of accessioning or cataloguing
system to keep track of the recordings and associated paperwork. Make
a note of details such as the date of recording, the equipment used, the
number of tapes or discs etc.
The EMOHA information sheet 'How Do I Transcribe and Summarise Oral History Recordings' gives tips on writing up the interviews, while 'How to Look After Your Material' covers storing the material and devising a system for keeping track of everything.
For more information sheets which cover subjects such as 'How to publish
your interviews', and 'How to put sound on the web', go to EMOHA
The Oral History Society site is particularly good, and contains links to other websites and to useful books and journals, while EMOHA's 'Interviewing for Research' looks at the issues raised above in more detail.
Other websites which might be useful are linked to on our training links page.