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Oral History - Methodologies and Sources

This guide brings together information on oral history methodology as well as a list of select oral history collections and resources at Duke Libraries.

Interview habits

Oral history interviewing can be elevated by good habits or diminished by poor ones.  In Oral History for the Local Historical Society (see the box below), Willa K. Baum provides a number of very useful guidelines for interviewing.

Mostly common sense, these points are also worth keeping in mind:

  • Encourage your narrator to relax.  Let them get comfortable in the chair you’re having them sit in, and chat with them while you go over your checklist (see below).  Let them know the interview can be paused at any time, if they’re uncomfortable talking about a topic, need some time to think, or use the bathroom.  Have a bottle of water on hand for them -- throats get parched in oral histories.
  • Let your subject know that as the interview progresses you will be checking your questions and writing notes; that is, just because you’re looking down or away from them -- and if you're on your own, checking the recorder -- doesn’t mean you are uninterested in what they are saying.
  • Introduce the interview with your name, the date, where you are, and who you are interviewing (for example, “My name is Jane Smith and today is September 1, 2017.  I am in Durham, North Carolina, and with me is John Smith, my grandfather, who I will be interviewing today for an oral history.”)
  • Ask your questions in open-ended fashion, avoiding simple “yes” or “no” responses.  So, rather than saying, “Did you enjoy going to Duke University?” you could say, “Tell me about going to Duke University.”
  • Avoid jumping into a response or cutting off the interviewee in mid-reply.
  • Avoid verbalizing affirmation, such as “uh-huh,” or “mmmm.”  While these may seem naturally conversational, they can really leap out of the recording when it’s played back.  Just nod your head instead.
  • Try not to fidget, click your pen, etc.  A good microphone will pick these up.
  • Your eyes should be on the interviewee or on your notes.  Take your watch off and keep it on your clipboard or notepad (making a show of checking the time could make your subject anxious regarding how much he or she has said).  Cellphones should be silenced and put away.
  • While diverging from the questions can be a great thing, keep the interviewee focused on the topics you came to discuss.  This can be done fairly easily, simply by saying, for example, “Let’s get back to your days at Duke.”
  • As the interview concludes be sure to ask your narrator if there's anything they wished to include that hasn't been covered.

As noted elsewhere in this guide, to a great degree a successful interview comes down to good planning and preparation.  This does not mean that a cheat sheet is not appropriate on the day of the interview. See this Session Checklist for some practical reminders on getting the interview underway.

A note on documentation: In an oral history interview produced by the Rubenstein Library, there are ideally three people in the room: the interviewer, the narrator, and, the recording technician.  The recording technician’s responsibility goes beyond gear setup and pushing the record button.  S/he brings critical listening skills, recording the content of the conversation on the topics sheet and relating it to the time elapsed, as well as assessing the narrator and the environment, and recording that information in the log sheet.  The topic sheet can be invaluable when processing an interview that has not yet been transcribed, while the log sheet can give a sense of how the narrator “performed” during the interview, and if there were any distracting or noteworthy external elements affecting the production.

Log sheet

Topics sheet

If an interview does not have a recording technician, the log sheet should still be completed.  The interviewer should try also to keep a record of the discussion using the topics sheet; however, if this is unwieldy, the interviewer could note the approximate elapsed time next to the questions being asked.

After the interview is complete, the log and topic sheets, as well as the question list used by the interviewer, should be scanned, named appropriately, and placed with the other files created for the interview.

Willa K. Baum's interviewing rules

I imagine Willa K. Baum was kind of an oral history taskmaster, but while the tone of these tips is somewhat stern the advice is quite good and comes from one of oral history's original movers and shakers.


Tips for Interviewers

From Willa K. Baum, Oral History for the Local Historical Society

  1. An interview is not a dialogue. The whole point of the interview is to get the narrator to tell his story. Limit your own remarks to a few pleasantries to break the ice, then brief questions to guide him along. It is not necessary to give him the details of your great-grandmother’s trip in a covered wagon in order to get him to tell you about his grandfather’s trip to California. Just say, “I understand your grandfather came around the Horn to California. What did he tell you about the trip?”

  2. Ask questions that require more of an answer than “yes” or “no.” Start with “Why, How, Where, What kind of....” Instead of “Was Henry Miller a good boss?” ask “What did the cowhands think of Henry Miller as a boss?”

  3. Ask one question at a time. Sometimes interviewers ask a series of questions all at once. Probably the narrator will answer only the first or last one. You will catch this kind of questioning when you listen through the tape after the session and you can avoid it the next time.

  4. Ask brief questions. We all know the irrepressible speech-maker who, when questions are called for at the end of a lecture, gets up and asks a five-minute question. It is unlikely that the narrator is so dull that it takes more than a sentence or two for him to understand the question.

  5. Start with non-controversial questions; save the delicate questions, if there are any, until you have become better acquainted. A good place to begin is with the narrator’s youth and background.

  6. Don’t let periods of silence fluster you. Give your narrator a chance to think of what he wants to add before you hustle him along with the next question. Relax, write a few words on your notepad. The sure sign of a beginning interviewer is a tape where every brief pause signals the next question.

  7. Don’t worry if your questions are not as beautifully phrased as you would like them to be for posterity. A few fumbled questions will help put your narrator to ease as he realizes that you are not perfect and he need not worry if he isn’t either. It is unnecessary to practice fumbling a few questions; most of us are nervous enough to do that naturally.

  8. Don’t interrupt a good story because you have thought of a question, or because your narrator is straying from the planned outline. If the information is pertinent, let him go on, but jot down your question on your notepad so you will remember to ask it later.

  9. If your narrator does stray in non-pertinent subjects (the most common problems are to follow some family member’s children or to get into a series of family medical problems), try to pull him back as quickly as possible. “Before we move on, I’d like to find out how the closing of the mine in 1898 affected your family’s finances. Do you remember that?”

  10. It is often hard for a narrator to describe persons. An easy way to begin is to ask him to describe the person’s appearance. From there, the narrator is more likely to move into character description.

  11. Interviewing is one time when a negative approach is more effective than a positive one. Ask about the negative aspects of a situation. For example, in asking about a person, do not begin with a glowing description of him. “I know the mayor was a very generous and wise person. Did you find him so?” Few narrators will quarrel with a statement like that even though they may have found the mayor a disagreeable person. You will get a more lively answer if you start out in the negative. “Despite the mayor’s reputation for good works, I hear he was a very difficult man for his immediate employees to get along with.” If your narrator admired the mayor greatly, he will spring to his defense with an apt illustration of why your statement is wrong. If he did find him hard to get along with, your remark has given him a chance to illustrate some of the mayor’s more unpleasant characteristics.

  12. Try to establish at every important point in the story where the narrator was or what his role was in this event, in order to indicate how much is eye-witness information and how much based on reports of others. “Where were you at the time of the mine disaster?” “Did you talk to any of the survivors later?” “Did their accounts differ in any way from the newspaper accounts of what happened?” Work around these questions carefully or you can appear to be doubting the accuracy of the narrator’s account.

  13. Do not challenge accounts you think may be inaccurate. Instead, try to develop as much information as possible that can be used by later researchers in establishing what probably happened. Your narrator may be telling you quite accurately what he saw. As Walter Lord explained when describing his interview with survivors of the Titanic, “Every lady I interviewed had left the sinking ship in the last lifeboat. As I later found out from studying the placement of the lifeboats, no group of lifeboats was in view of another and each lady probably was in the last lifeboat she could see leaving the ship.”

  14. Do tactfully point out to your narrator that there is a different account of what he is describing, if there is. Start out “I have heard...” or “I have read....” This is not a challenge to his account, but rather an opportunity for him to bring up further evidence to refute the opposing view, or to explain how that view got established, or to temper what he has already said. If done skillfully, some of your best information can come from this juxtaposition of differing accounts.

  15. Try to avoid “off the record” information — the times when your narrator asks you to turn off the recorder while he tells you a good story. Ask him to let you record the whole thing and promise that you will erase that portion if he asks you to after further consideration. You may have to erase it later, or he may not tell you the story at all, but once you allow “off the record” stories, he may continue with more and more and you will end up with almost no recorded interview at all. “Off the record” information is only useful if you yourself are researching a subject and this is the only way you can get the information. It has no value if your purpose is to collect information for later use by other researchers.

  16. Don’t switch the recorder off and on. It is much better to waste a little tape on irrelevant material than to call attention to the tape recorder by a constant on-off operation. For this reason, I do not recommend the stop-start switches available on some mikes. If your mike has such a switch, tape it to “on” to avoid an inadvertent missing of material — then forget it. Of course you can turn off the recorder if the telephone rings or someone interrupts your session.

  17. Interviews usually work out better if there is no one present except the narrator and the interviewer. Sometimes two or more narrators can be successfully recorded, but usually each one of them would have been better alone.

  18. Do end the interview at a reasonable time. An hour and a half is probably maximum. First, you must protect your narrator against over-fatigue; second, you will be tired even if he isn’t. Some narrators tell you very frankly if they are tired, or their wives will. Otherwise, you must plead fatigue, another appointment, or no more tape.

  19. Don’t use the interview to show off your own knowledge, vocabulary, charm, or other abilities. Good interviewers do not shine; only their interviews do.