Public History Series: Oral History

Oral history is one of the more difficult projects to undertake because it involves you and another person.  Oral interviews can be difficult depending on the person being interviewed and the person conducting the interview.  There are some keys to conducting the interview, and, as with anything, there are some drawbacks to this type of history.

Conducting an oral interview is the focus of oral history.  The first thing to consider when taking on an oral history project is where the interview will take place.  It should be a comfortable place for the interviewee and also a place where there will be few distractions.  The other thing to consider is how will the interview be recorded.  This can be done using a sound recording or a video recording device.  Either way, it is important to understand that the interviewee will often be nervous about being recorded and it may take them a few minutes to warm up to the recorder.  It is important for the interviewer to begin and not draw attention to the recording device.  It is wise to run a few practice interviews with the person.  In a perfect world, the interviewee would be interviewed two or three times to be sure all the information has been gathered, but time does not always allow for that.

The goal of the interview is to find out specific information about that person’s life.  Therefore, the interviewer must prepare a series of questions to direct the conversation, but it is important to let the interviewee tell the story.  There is nothing more annoying than the interviewer cutting the interviewee off mid-sentence and asking a new question.  LET THEM TALK.  The questions prepared must be open ended questions and not require only a simple Yes/No answer.  The best way to begin the interview is by asking simple questions.  What is your name?  Where were you born?  When were you born?  Who were your parents?  What did your parents do for a living?  These questions serve two purposes.  First, yhey give background information, but they also serve as a ice-breakers and will take their mind off the recording device.  Throughout the interview, the interviewer should only speak to direct conversation and at times it may be necessary to get the interviewee back on topic, but the interviewer should not be features prominently.  The interview should only last about an hour.  Anything more than that and the interviewee begins to fatigue and it shows in the interview.  If more time is needed, simply go back later to complete the interview.

After the interview is complete, the next step is to transcribe it.  Many oral history collections will require a transcription of the recording to go along with it.  This is the most time consuming part of the process and can take several hours.  At this point, many decisions must be made.  Do you correct incorrect grammar?  Do you remove the countless “uhs” and “ums”?  The simple answer is no.  You should try to be as true to the interviewee as possible in the transcript.  Not everyone who accesses the interview will have time to listen to or watch the recording of the interview.  The transcript must stay as authentic as possible.

Oral histories serve a great purpose by adding a more individualized aspect to history, but they do not come without their drawbacks.  The interviewee is often drawing from memory and recalling events that may have taken place over fifty years ago, and the events may not be as clear.  There may be gaps in the story or the interviewee may change the story to improve their image.  Oral histories are important and there are some large projects being undertaken to collect them.  One of the largest is the Veterans History Project by the Library of Congress.  They are collecting the stories of veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War for their archives.  While it is not always a public historian conducting a oral history, it often is.  A wide variety of historians use oral histories in their work because they add a personal touch to it, and there are many important stories that need to be recording for future generations.


NOTE:  This is the third in a ten part series on Public History.  The posts from the series will be presented on Wednesdays and Saturdays from now until April 6.  A wide variety of aspects will be covered and I will try to present an unbiased account of the positive and negative aspects of each subcategory of Public History.


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