Explain: Oral History

Borrowed from the Oral History Association:

Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.

In Doing Oral History, Donald Ritchie explains, “Oral History collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews.  An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary materials can also be posted on the Internet.  Oral history does not include random taping, such as President Richard Nixon’s surreptitious recording of his White House conversations, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, wiretapping, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.”

The Oral History Association offers several resources for you to learn about all facets of oral history.  OHA also offers a series of publications on community oral history, family oral history, oral history and the law, and other subjects.

Glossary of Oral History terms and Concepts:

Narrator. Taking our cue from the Oral History Association (see bibliography), this is the term we use for the people that we interview.  We choose to not use “interviewee” or “subject” to distinguish oral history from other types of scientific or journalism interviews.

Oral Historian. The person asking the questions.  Again, we use this term rather than “interviewer,” “researcher,” or “journalist” because oral historians have a different role than other types of question-askers in the world today.  (See more about “shared authority” below.)

Pre-Interview Questionnaire. This is a list of basic “just the facts” questions that you may prepare and ask your narrator to answer (usually in written form) before the interview.  Getting biographic information before the interview can be a great jumping off place for your pre-interview research (more on that later).  If you decide to use this, make sure you have the completed questionnaire in hand a few weeks or at least a few days before the interview to give yourself ample time to research and formulate your questions for the interview.

Pre-interview research and preparation.  Doing background research and preparing questions before an interview will greatly enrich your ability as oral historian to ask intelligent, probing questions and to follow up with additional questions to go deeper.  It will also make you feel more familiar and comfortable with the topics your narrator may discuss.  Background research can include talking to family members or friends about what stories they know your narrator has told before, or going to a library or a computer to investigate historical events, places, social or political movements, or organizations with which your narrator has had experiences.  The answers from a Pre-Interview Questionnaire (see above) are a great place to begin your research.  It might seem like homework, but it is worth it.  Just do it.

Establishing rapport.  In order to get to a point where both you as oral historian and the narrator are comfortable and the memories are flowing, you must first establish trust between the two of you.  Even if you’re interviewing someone you already know, like a relative, interviewing her in this way will take a bit of easing into, so be patient.  Meeting or talking over the phone with your narrator before the interview, making informal conversation as you set up, and starting with easy questions are a great way to establish rapport.  Luckily for you, just the suggestion of doing oral history interview– the deep listening, follow up questions, and attention that will go along with it– is a big first step to establishing a bond and conveying empathy for your narrator.  Be sure to make sure your narrator knows she can stop at any time during the interview if she needs a break.  It can be physically and emotionally exhausting (more on limiting the time-length of an interview below).

Shared authority.  A term often used in the oral history community, this is really what makes oral history interviews special.  As an oral historian, you are asking your narrator to share her stories, experiences, and reflections with you.  This is a great honor.  While the oral historian is the one asking the questions, an oral history interview is not about extracting information.  It is a back and forth, a gentle, loving push and pull.  While an oral historian prepares questions and guides the overall direction of the interview, the narrator should always feel that she has ownership over her own memories.  Remember, the stories are your narrator’s stories, to represent, share, or keep private as she wishes.  A narrator may self-censor, or choose to not share certain things for the record.  That is okay– there is plenty to talk about without going into skeletons in the closet– and, besides, for the enjoyment of both of you, you want your narrator to be comfortable.

Non-verbal encouragement is a key skill to develop to ensure a clean tape (an audio recording free of extraneous “oohs” and “ahhs” from the oral historian).  How can you convey your interest and encourage your narrator without saying “uh-huh” and “wow”?  Hint: try eye contact, nodding, smiling, furrowing your brow, and other facial expressions.  Just say NO (in your head, I mean) to “mm-hmm” and “really?”!

Deep listening.  You will be amazed what an effect really, truly listening can have on your narrator and the interview.  You may also be amazed at how difficult this is.  Keep at it.  It improves with practice.  If you find your mind wandering, try making eye-contact, blinking, glancing at your notes, or whatever you can to remind yourself where you are and who you are talking to.  It’s also absolutely fine to ask for a break yourself.

Following up.  Be sure to follow up with more questions when you want to hear more, if you smell a story may be lurking nearby, or if you sense your narrator could go deeper.  Good follow up questions can be as simple as “Can you tell me more?” or “What was that like for you?”

Oral history projects we love:

AHEYM The Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories (AHEYM — the acronym means “homeward” in Yiddish) is a linguistic and oral history project that includes Yiddish language interviews with approximately 380 people, most of whom were born between the 1900s and the 1930s. The interviews were conducted in Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia between 2002 and 2012.


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