About Interviews and Oral Histories

Conducting an Oral History: Lessons Learned

A few opening remarks
Taking a person’s history is at its core a very personal act. Just think about it. You are asking someone you don’t know to open up to you, tell you things he or she may never have shared with anyone before. How you as the interviewer approach this says a great deal about your personality and what you think is important.  Just know one thing: You are entering into a relationship. You can’t remain detached or separate. You will have feelings about what the person is telling you, and never ever try to pretend you don’t. Empathizing with people is human. Don’t be so concerned about asking the next question that you don’t get involved with the story at hand.

After reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work for me as I interviewed the women in this book, I came up with the following things to consider as you embark on this amazing adventure. Here they are.

  1. Selecting the people to interview
  2. Preparing for your interview (research and questions)
  3. Bringing the right “stuff” to your interview (directions, phone, tape recorder, paper)
  4. Conducting your interview (be flexible, listen)
  5. Transcribing your interview and reviewing your notes (what to do when you get home)

1.   Selecting the people to interview

Three things to consider
Of every decision you will make, this is by far and away the most important of all. Why is this? If you choose the wrong people, you might have boring interviews, and there is nothing worse than a boring interview. What should you look for when making this decision?

 First and foremost, you need people who want to tell their story.  The people you choose should be able to speak to the theme you have selected.  If your theme is immigrant life in big cities, don’t interview someone who spent all their life on a farm.

Secondly, you need people who have an interesting story to tell and who will work with you to help tell it. They may not know how to do this at the beginning. Who does? It is your job to help them tell their stories with as much color, humor, emotion and complexity as possible.

The third thing is to look for people who have the time to tell their story..Be patient. Don’t rush the interview. Let the story emerge naturally.  Give yourself and the people you are interviewing time to get to know and trust one another. Then and only then will you be able to get beyond the surface to the richness of their stories.

2.   Preparing for your Interview

Do your homework.
Read up on the country the person comes from. Learn about its history, politics and culture. You don’t need to know everything before you begin, just some of the most important events on that note, and do not be afraid to admit that you don’t know something. Just ask for more information. The people you will interview will be more than happy to help out.

Ask good questions.
Then, based on your research, you will need to develop your questions. The questions make the interview. Pure and simple. So make them interesting. Make them thought provoking.  Remember, your job is to help people tell their story with as much color and description as possible so that when the readers are finished with the story they will say: “I really know this person. I understand what this person went through.  Description is the key.

Here are some prompts that will help you create these visual images:

Tell me about…
Describe (ask about colors, pictures, sounds, size, smells, etc.)…
Take me through…
Help me understand…
What did you feel?
How did you react?
What was going on in your mind?

3.  Bringing the right “stuff” with you

This may sound like a “no brainer,” but trust me if you don’t remember these things, you will go completely crazy.

Before you go to your interview, remember to:

  1. Bring your tape recorder, and make sure you know how to use it. Believe me, you don’t want to be fiddling around with the buttons while the person you are interviewing sits and waits for you to get your act together. Oh yes, and make sure you bring enough tapes and batteries.
  2. Bring paper and a pen or pencil. You will want to make notes of important themes, names, dates, ideas for research, as you conduct your interview. This will help you later as you try to make sense of your interview.

4.  Conducting your interview.

Your first interview
It’s the most important interview of all. It is during this interview that you will be setting the stage for everything that follows. Take the first ten minutes or so to tell the person a little about who you are and why you want to interview him or her. Ask if there are any questions. Take your time and make sure you are on the same page. Then you can begin.

Here are some general rules of thumb when you are conducting your interviews:

  1. Find a comfortable place to do the interview, and make sure there is a good spot for your tape recorder. This is more important than it seems. You shouldn’t feel shy about asking to move to a more comfortable place. If you are lucky enough to be doing the interview in the home of the person you are interviewing, ask about the photos on the walls, decorations and the knick knacks. This is a good way to get to know people and their culture, and it allows them to “show off” their home.
  2. Don’t rush through your questions. This is the most frequent mistake people make. They have a list of questions and by hook or by crook they will get through them. Not a good idea. Listen carefully.  Don’t be so eager to get on with your questions that you miss out on the best descriptions or the best stories. And remember that when people pause, it isn’t always because they are finished answering a question, but rather sometimes they are going back in time, trying to reclaim a lost memory. Give them time to do this. You can always ask: Are you ready for the next question or do you still have something to add? This happened to me many times.  Don’t be restricted by the questions you have prepared in advance.  If an interesting topic comes up, ask follow up questions.
  3. Make sure that the person understands each question and you understand his or her response. Make sure your questions are clear and the answers are accurate.
  4. Ask to see photos, memorabilia and anything else that will give you insight into their culture and lives. If appropriate, ask if you can have a copy or make a copy of them. Refuse the urge to take them home. The last thing you want is to feel bad because you lost the only photo they had of their great grandmother or a vintage coin.
  5. Leave five minutes at the end of the interview to talk about next steps. This might include another interview, a phone call, or something else. Remember to bring your calendar. It is always best to schedule something in person. Naturally, always thank the people for their time and willingness to work with you.

5.  Transcribing your interview and reviewing your notes: what to do when you get home

Remember to immediately transcribe your interview and review your notes as soon as you get home. This is important. The closer you are to the interview, the easier it will be to remember what was said. Mark the day and time of your interview and number each interview so that you won’t get confused. This is easy to do when you conduct multiple interviews.

As you transcribe your interview and review your notes, jot down the important themes and ideas, and also the next questions you want to ask. You will find that you need more detail, more color, more emotion and more facts. You will realize that you need to ask again about someone’s name, the name of a city or someone’s date of birth, small but important details.

Do not, I repeat, do not delete anything until you are ready to put the story together. You may not know what is important until you have completed your oral history.

The following recommendations and guidelines regarding oral histories come from In the Heart of Another, a book by Susan Philips which includes interviews with women who immigrated to the U.S. from Asia and Latin America.







♦ Retrospectives

♦ Celebrating Ethnicity