Creating Oral Histories

Interviewing community members is one way that you can learn about places in your community and how the place's significance has changed over time. An oral history is 'a record of information gathered in oral form, usually on tape, as the result of a planned interview'  (Library of Congress).

What is gained from completing an oral history is something much more. It allows us to gain an insight into society and its changing values and attitudes by linking different generations and social groups.

For people to interview, ask parents and family friends, or try a local history society, library or museum. You may need to ask the parent's or guardian's permission for the student to conduct interviews.

Stepping through the process

1. Before you begin

  • Know why you are doing the interview.
  • Find out as much as you can about the topic beforehand (this will help you to ask useful questions).
  • Arrange a quiet place to hold the interview. It can be indoors (eg: classroom, office space) or outdoors (eg: a garden), but preferably a place where there will be no loud noises, distractions or interruptions.
  • Know your equipment. If you are recording the interview make sure your equipment is charged.

2. Seek permission from the person you are interviewing

  • Introduce yourself.
  • Explain why you are doing the interview (what is the purpose?).
  • Outline the sort of information you want to find out.
  • Ask if they have any photos, objects, newspaper cuttings on the topic.
  • Confirm the time and place of the interview. Check whether they only have a limited time to talk to you. There is nothing worse than getting only half way through your questions and finding out that your interviewee can only stay for five more minutes.
  • Make sure the person you are interviewing knows how the information will be used. It may be for a school essay or it may be used as part of a school display. Make sure your interviewee is happy to continue.
  • A written agreement should be entered in to outlining the information upon which you and the interviewee have agreed.

3. Plan your questions

  • Think about the kinds of questions you want to ask. 'Closed questions' will give you facts, like dates. For example, 'when did you work at the factory?'. 'Open questions leave room for the interviewee to provide more information. For example, 'What did you like or dislike about working in the factory?'.
  • Write down your questions in order so you don't forget them.

4. Do the interview

  • Plan to arrive earlier than the agreed time so you have time to set up your equipment and do a quick test recording.
  • When your interviewee arrives remember to introduce yourself and explain again why you are doing the interview and what will happen with the oral history.
  • Ask the interviewee if they are ready to start and if they say yes, begin asking your questions.

5. End the interview

  • Once you have asked all your questions, ask if there is anything the interviewee would like to ask or discuss.
  • Ask if the interviewee knows of anyone else who might be able to help.
  • Thank them for their time.

6. After the interview

  • Professional oral historians would make a transcript of their interview. A transcript is a written copy of the recording you made.
  • Transcribing is very time consuming. Listening to the tape back in class or at home and writing down the important points is probably sufficient for classroom exercises.
  • Write a formal letter of thanks to your interviewee. If you have agreed to provide a copy of the interview, do so.

Tips on being a good interviewer

  • Be friendly and address the person being interviewed by name. Many people are shy or embarrassed. It is up to you to put them at ease.
  • Be clear. Make sure you can be heard.
  • Be a good listener; do not talk too much yourself.
  • Do not interrupt when an interviewee is "on a roll". Make sure that you let them tell the whole story as they remember it.
  • Be sensitive and where it seems appropriate and not too intrusive, ask follow-up questions that try to delve into feelings and emotions. Try to be probing with your questions and aim to get some depth.
  • Don't be afraid of gaps in the conversation or silences. Some interviewees may be using the time to gather their thoughts and appreciate the space that you give them.
  • Don't debate or argue with the interviewee, or make the interviewee feel inferior because of your knowledge.


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