Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Tools for Hands-on History

Oral History

Interviewing people who were eyewitnesses to history breathes life into the facts found in other primary sources. But to get more than “yes,” “no,” and “uh-huh,” learn to ask the right questions!

Before your interview

Step 1: Set a goal

Set a goal—not too general and not too specific—that can be accomplished in a 60–90 minute interview.

Step 2: Make contact

  1. Find a source person (“interviewee” or “narrator”) who knows something about your subject. Talk to people from different sides of controversial subjects.
  2. Call your source person. Introduce yourself, explain your project, and your goal for the interview. Ask if he or she would agree to be interviewed.
  3. Arrange a time and place for the interview.
  4. Invite your interviewee to bring photos, scrapbooks, or anything else that might provoke memories and stories.

Step 3: Plan your questions

  1. Brainstorm questions that will help you reach your goal.
    • Plan a variety of questions, since each question word asks for a different kind of response:
    • “What” asks for a noun: a person, place or thing;
    • “What…doing” asks about an action;
    • “Where” asks about a place;
    • “Who” asks about people;
    • “When” asks about time;
    • “Why” asks for reasons;
    • “How” asks about a process.
    • Request general information by asking:
      • “Describe…”
      • “Tell me about…”
      • “Explain…”
  2. Rewrite and organize:
    • Sort out repetitive questions;
    • Rewrite unclear questions;
    • Rearrange the questions in a logical order

Step 4: Practice

  1. Read your questions out-loud so you are comfortable with them and you know they make sense.
  2. Test your audio- or video-taping equipment so you know how it works. Get extra tapes and batteries.

During your interview

Step 1: Set-up

  1. Ask your interviewee to sign a release form so you can use the tape for your project (see example).
  2. Test the equipment to make sure it works and the interviewee’s voice can be heard.

Step 2: Interview

  1. Relax, smile, look at the person while you talk!
  2. Ask your questions one at a time, pause, pay attention, and listen to the answer.
  3. Jot down follow-up questions as the narrator talks to avoid interrupting. Try some of these follow-up techniques:
    • Ask for an example: “What kinds games did you play after school?”
    • Ask for clarification: “Then, did you take a train or a bus to work?”   
    • Rephrase a statement into a question: “So, you worked in the mines for 30 years?”   
    • Prompt: “Uh-huh.” “And…” “What else?” “Tell me about that.”    

After your interview

Step 1: Listen

  1. Listen to or watch your tape right away to be sure the interview recorded.
  2. Confirm any facts that were mentioned.
  3. Evaluate whether you reached your interview goal:

Step 2: Log

  1. Log your tape: Use the tape counter and write down the number where the stories or answers to your questions start and stop.
  2. Index the tape with the date of the interview, the name and address of the person, and your log of its contents.

Step 3: Transcribe and edit

  1. Choose sections of the interview for your project:
    • For papers and exhibits transcribe excerpts, writing down exactly what they said;
    • Presentations: edit tape to use just what you need
  2. Footnote your quotes according to the citation style you’ve chosen (ex: MLA, ALA, or Turabian).

Oral history pros and cons

On one hand...

  • Interviews provide a human perspective on events: feelings, opinions, and everyday details;
  • Oral history relays history that doesn’t make it into books: women, children, laborers, minorities, popular culture, and home life;
  • Everyone has a slightly different memory of the way things happen—by interviewing more than one person, you get to hear multiple perspectives.

On the other hand...

  • Oral history only works for events in living memory;
  • Interviews are not too reliable for hard facts, which should be confirmed with written sources;
  • Finding the right source people can be a challenge;
  • Everyone has a slightly different memory of the way things happen—when stories conflict, it’s hard to tell which is most accurate.

Release Form

At the time of your interview, make sure you ask your interviewee to sign a release form that allows you to use his or her interview, store it on tape, and archive it in a safe place (like a library or museum). Your release can be very simple -- use the sample below as a guide to create your own.

Interview Release Form

I hereby give and grant to __________________________ (school name) as a donation for educational purposes, the taped interview and its contents listed below.

___ Audiotape                                    Content summary:

___ Videotape

Date of interview

Name of interviewer

Signature of interviewee

Address of interviewee

Adapted from material ©1987 by Susan K. Donley. Used here by permission. All other rights reserved.

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