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Interviewing for Oral History: Home

Interviewing tips and sources to record an oral history.

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.
A family or community oral history tells a story by capturing the memories of the elders and others who represent that defined group.
 

Preparing for the interview

  • Review a few interviewing styles to get an idea of styles that you like.
  • Complete an Interview Release Form (download file on left) for each person you interview. Pay attention to restrictions stated in the form.
  • Familiarize yourself with the interviewee. What do you already know? Obtain background research on the person and the topic to discuss.
  • Prepare questions that will guide the conversation and encourage the best responses. Agree upon an approximate length of time for the interview.
  • Find a quiet place for the interview, void of background noise – unless ambient sounds are contextual to the conversation. Background noise should not overpower the interview.
  • Familiarize yourself with the recording equipment prior to the interview. Get a mic check to ensure that responses can be heard once recording begins.
  • Greet your guest and explain what you are doing. Help them to relax and feel comfortable about being interviewed.

The interview

  • Introduce yourself and the interviewee, including the date and location where interview is taking place. Explain the topic of the interview. 
  • Ask open-ended questions that require more than just a “yes” or “no” response. Ask “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why”, and “how” questions.
  • Listen actively and attentively. Ask subsequent questions based on the interviewer’s response, such as, “how did … make you feel?”
  • Allow brief pauses as you and your guest gathers thought to their response.
  • Pay attention to the interviewee. Look at their body language to determine if they may be uncomfortable with a question, or are getting tired and would like to take a break.

Things to avoid

  • Try not to fire down each question on your list without listening to your interviewee. Help them to feel that what they have to say is important.
  • Avoid interrupting the interviewee. Give them opportunity to complete their response. If you would like to move on, take the approach of saying, “let’s move on to another topic” or “I hate to interrupt you, but let me ask you this, …”.
  • Watch for cues if you guest starts to ramble, repeat themselves, engage in “ands” or “umms” sentence holders, or breaks eye contact with you. They are cues that your guest may be done answering your question. Provide either a follow up question or move on to your next question.
  • Gap fillers, such as “ands” and “umms”, and “you knows” occur when the respondent is thinking of a response and is trying to fill the gaps of silence. Long gaps can be edited out.
  • Avoid compound questions which may overwhelm your guest causing incomplete or confusing responses. Ask one question at a time.

Books in the library