Conducting an oral history? Maybe for a thesis, class project, or as part of your job/internship? On the surface, it can seem like an easy process: Find someone with a story to tell, sit them down, and push the record button.
Unfortunately, it is not so easy. Entire books have been written about the theory and practice of oral history! There isn’t quite enough space in this blog to thoroughly go over everything (you can check out some of the links, below!). But here are some of the major “dos and don’ts” that you should be aware of before the tape starts rolling!
- DO talk to the interviewee about the interview before it actually starts. Don’t give away your specific questions unless asked, but go over the themes and topics you want to discuss. Preferably, this should be done in person. If that is not possible, a phone conversation is the next best thing – do not try and discuss the interview over email unless there are no other options.
- DO make sure your equipment is in good working order. Test everything! Are your batteries charged? Is your microphone actually on? One important tip: Always keep the camera plugged in, if possible. Cameras will sometimes report they have more battery than they actually do.
- DO dress and act professionally. Remember, the interviewee is giving you their valuable time. Conduct the interview around their schedule, wear business-casual attire, and address them politely in emails.
- DO have your questions ready ahead of time. Doing this will ensure that you don’t fall prey to nerves. Have everything you want to ask clearly typed out. Carefully consider the questions you are going to ask and conduct preliminary research.
- DO listen! This may seem obvious, but if you are nervous or tired, you may be tempted to tune out the interviewee. This becomes a problem when you ask questions that the interviewee has already addressed. You might also miss the chance to ask a great follow-up question on specific topics the interviewee brings up.
- DON’T make yourself a part of the interview. If you just enjoy a good conversation, you may be tempted to chime in with your own opinions or experiences. Resist this urge at all costs! The focus should be on the interviewee and their story.
- DON’T turn off the camera…unless asked by the interviewee. If your oral history is edited, it may not be considered for entry into professional repositories. The interviewee’s story should be uninterrupted. There is a caveat, however – if the interviewee asks for the camera to be turned off, honor this request.
- DON’T react to what the interviewee says. When you are engaging in a normal conversation, you may nod or make exclamations when your friend is speaking. Saying things like: “Really?” “No way!” and “That’s so great!” may seem natural to you, but saying these things in oral histories might lead your interviewee away from their actual story and toward what they think you want to hear. (By the way, it is totally appropriate to tell the interviewee this before you start your oral history)
- DON’T forget about paperwork. Regardless of whether your oral history is for your own research or a large repository, you must complete paperwork to use the oral history. Consult an oral history professor at a local university to see what forms are best for you.
- DON’T ask “yes” or “no” questions. Or, at least, avoid them. If you have a talkative interviewee, this may be no problem. But few things are more awkward than when you ask a question like: “Did you enlist in the army?” and hearing a simple: “Yes.” This also has the effect of ending your oral history experience in about ten minutes.
- Agree or disagree with these suggestions? Have some of your own to add? Leave us a comment below!