On Conducting an Oral History Interview
- An oral history is basically a primary source that an historian constructs from an interview with an interesting subject. There are a few cardinal rules for oral histories:
- 1) Tape record the interview and do not change what the interviewee says--not the language, not the order, not the content;
- 2) Tell the interviewee that you cannot turn off the tape recorder, ever--and don't do it. Some of the best information comes after the tape recorder turns off;
- 3) Include your own questions exactly as you asked them in the transcript of the interview;
- 4) If conducting more than one interview about the same topic, be consistent in the questions that you ask.
- In order to conduct an oral history interview, select an interesting individual with a good memory who is willing to talk about his or her experiences (bias #1: oral histories provide no evidence from those who do not wish to discuss their pasts; bias #2: oral histories leave out the senile and those who did not survive; bias #3: oral histories come only from those who have contacts with the interviewer).
- Make a list of questions that you want to ask and stick to them. This does not mean you should not let the person reminisce, but that you should attempt to keep the interview on track. Tell the person that you will be tape recording them (see cardinal rules 1 and 2 above).
- After you have conducted the interview, transcribe it--and keep the tape.
- For further information:
- -- See Trevor Lummis, Listening to History: The Authenticity of Oral Evidence (Hutchinson: London, 1987), David K. Dunaway and Willa K. Baum, Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1996), Studs Terkel, Listening to Myself: A Memoir of My Times (New York: Pantheon, 1977), and T. H. Breen, Imagining the Past: East Hampton Histories (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1989).
- -- Online guides to oral history interviewing, tips for interviewers, and general information through the Oral History Association
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 401 (Advanced Seminar in Historical Method), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York.
Last modified: Wednesday 25 February 1998