HIST 360: United States Immigration History

Conducting Oral Histories

Overview:

What is Oral History?

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. Gathering memories typically means the recording in interview form of personal narratives from people with first-hand knowledge of historical or current events.

Why Conduct Oral Histories?

First-person documentation lends a personal dimension to history by recording ordinary people and everyday life experiences. Some stories may be forgotten and untold narratives. Oral Histories can fill gaps in existing knowledge or history by providing insights based on first-hand memories, experiences, and even beliefs of people. Often, the people chosen for oral history interviews provide a variety of perspectives that may have been overlooked.

Oral History Methodology:

According to the Oral History Association (OHA), an oral history interview typically consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are then transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. This guide outlines some of the principles and best practices recommended by the OHA and is organized by the three main stages of an oral history project—the pre-interview, the interview, and the post-interview. 

Before deciding to implement oral history methods, consider some of the essential questions of the methodology:

  • What are the goals of the project?
  • What resources are available?
  • How will you record, disseminate, and preserve the interviews?
  • What is the time frame for the project?
  • Who will benefit from your project? (think both short and long-term)

Stage 1: Preparing for the Interview

Background Research:

To be prepared for the interview, conduct careful research that is both subject-focused and that contextualizes your narrator within the circumstances of the event or time period you are studying. To begin with you will need to know what you are trying to learn. Come up with a concise sentence or two that summarizes your project and that will help you explain to potential narrators what you hope to accomplish. 

Doing background research requires considering information that already exists on your research topic. For example, if you wanted to learn more about a politician, you might want to consider campaign literature (including pins, brochures, posters, and so on); political documents; and perhaps other biographies or interviews that already exist. Likewise, if your focus is on a particular event or time period in history, you will want to consult newspaper accounts, perhaps economic data, any records pertaining to the event you are studying. As another example, if you are using oral history to collect and preserve your family history, you may want to draw from scrapbooks, photographs, family heirlooms, diaries, etc.

Many primary sources and archived interviews are available at The Claremont Colleges Library. See the "Resources" tab on the navigation menu for links to the oral history collections at the Honnold/Mudd Special Collections and links to the oral history archives of The Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

Questions that can help you prepare for your interview may include:

  • Why am I interviewing this person?
  • What do I hope to learn?
  • What events or topics do I want to document?
  • How will I use the interview data to illustrate a point or further my argument?

An important step in the interview process is a non-recorded pre-interview meeting. This step occurs after you have found an appropriate narrator who has agreed to work with you. The purpose of the non-recorded pre-interview meeting is to establish report and to learn as much as you can before the formal interview. Talking informally with your narrator can help you decide what questions to ask during the interview and provides the narrator with important information about the interview purpose and process. This pre-interview meeting can be done over the phone or email, but in person is best. Things you will want to let your interviewee know before the interview might include:

  • The purpose of the interview
  • How you will use the interview data
  • Approximate length of interview and where you will meet (this is a good time to schedule the interview)
  • Where the interview and accompanying materials will be stored and who will have access to these records.
Interview Equipment:

 If you are using equipment from CSU Libraries, be sure to reserve it early enough to use it twice: once to become familiar with the equipment, and then for the interview itself. Equipment rental tends to be for a very short period (1 day to 7 seven days) and the equipment will be in great demand if you are doing your oral history project as a class assignment.

Choosing the appropriate equipment for your purpose and budget is also an important part of preparing for your interview. Considerations should not only include your purposes, but also the long-range issues of access and preservation.

Developing Interview Questions: 

There are a number of excellent resources to aid you in developing your questions, some of which are posted on the "Resources" page of this guide. Briefly, you will want to develop two types of questions: those that obtain factual information about your narrator/interviewee, and questions that will assist your narrator/interviewee in remembering particular events or circumstances.

Biographical Data: Although you likely obtained much of the biographical information about your narrator/interviewee during the pre-interview meeting, it is standard practice to ask some of these questions at the beginning so that your narrator/interviewee can get comfortable with the interview process and equipment. Remember to be sensitive to your narrator's needs; some people are not comfortable disclosing age or other personal information.

► You may be interested in the Narrator/Interviewer Fact Form and/or a more detailed Life Story Form.

Open Questions: As the interview progresses your questions may become more concrete and may address more sensitive information. These typically include open questions—meaning that the questions cannot be answered by simply yes or no, or other finite response. Open questions probe for information and seek to trigger stories and memories from your narrator/interviewee.  Examples include the typical journalistic what, where, when, who, and how. But they will also include  phrases such as:

Tell me about...

Describe...

Explain...

me what . . . means

What other reasons . . . ?

Some people say . . . What do you think about that?

Questions are not meant to be followed rigidly; they are a jumping off point for your narrator's stories and memories. Part of the value of Oral Histories is that stories often wander off topic to memories we would not have known to ask about and that greatly enrich the overall project.

Note: Objects and photographs can also help to trigger memories, so invite your narrator/interviewee to bring any materials that might help them to explain or describe events. Your narrator/interviewee may even wish to donate such materials to be part of the oral history archive established for your project.

Location: Meeting locations should be safe and comfortable for both parties. You may be able to reserve a conference or other room at your institution or your interviewee may wish to interview at his or her home. Wherever you meet, it's a good idea to be sure someone else knows your location.

Boundaries: Respecting narrator rights and boundaries means understanding that your interviewee may choose to withhold information, may change his or her mind about the interview or even allowing dissemination after they have agreed to do so. You will need to be prepared to honor any requests your narrator makes, including asking to remain anonymous. Remember to honor these requests in the transcript and write-up of the interview as well. 

Emotion: It is not unusual for you or the narrator to be emotionally moved by the interviewee's stories and memories. If appropriate, temporarily stop the recording and allow your interviewee to regain composure. Perhaps your narrator will want a change of subject. Check in with your narrator and ensure that he or she is comfortable continuing with the interview at that time. You may need to reschedule.

Dissemination and Access: Because one of the primary objectives of oral history is making the information available to the public, you will want discuss this aspect of the project with your interviewee beforehand, and again during the interview. The narrator retains all rights to their interviews until and unless they transfer those rights. You may wish to offer your narrator an opportunity to discuss your transcript and/or project draft and they may wish to receive a copy of your final project. 

Stage 2: The Interview

Oral History Interviewing

Beginning in 2018, the federal guidelines for Institutional Review Boards (IRB) updated "scholarly and journalistic pursuits" as no longer needing IRB approval. The tab for "IRB" listed on the navigation menu provides links and policy overviews. It is a good idea to become familiar with campus and departmental policies. Other legal and ethical considerations may involve a number of aspects of your project, including:

  • meeting locations
  • personal boundaries
  • emotional reactions
  • anonymity requests
  • dissemination and access

Location: Meeting locations should be safe and comfortable for both parties. You may be able to reserve a conference or other room at your institution or your interviewee may wish to interview at his or her home. Wherever you meet, it's a good idea to be sure someone else knows your location.

Boundaries: Respecting narrator rights and boundaries means understanding that your interviewee may choose to withhold information, may change his or her mind about the interview or even allowing dissemination after they have agreed to do so. You will need to be prepared to honor any requests your narrator makes, including asking to remain anonymous. Remeber to honor these requests in the transcript and write-up of the interview as well. 

Emotion: It is not unusual for you or the narrator to be emotionally moved by the interviewee's stories and memories. If appropriate, temporarily stop the recording and allow your interviewee to regain composure. Perhaps your narrator will want a change of subject. Check in with your narrator and ensure that he or she is comfortable continuing with the interview at that time. You may need to reschedule.

Dissemination and Access: Because one of the primary objectives of oral history is making the information available to the public, you will want discuss this aspect of the project with your interviewee beforehand, and again during the interview. The narrator retains all rights to their interviews until and unless they transfer those rights. You may wish to offer your narrator an opportunity to discuss your transcript and/or project draft and they may wish to receive a copy of your final project. 

Organizing and Naming Your Files

Whether conducting one interview or a group of them, consistent and clear file names are of key importance in keeping them organized. If you are completing your Oral History Project for a course assignment, you'll want to find out if your instructor has file convention preferences. Otherwise, a good rule of thumb is use short descriptive terms separated by underscores. Do not use spaces or special characters (other than dashes or underscores). In the example below, the first part of the name is the interviewers initials followed by an underscore separating the next section which uses the last name and first initial of the narrator. The last section following the second underscore is the date in MMDDYYYY format.

JQP_RideS_03032018

Also, check with your repository to verify which file types they prefer to receive. They may, for example, prefer to receive Word documents (docx) or Rich Text Format (rtf); and they may wish to receive uncompressed WAV files rather than MP3 format.

Stage 3: Post-Interview

Wrapping Up the Interview

Thank your interviewee. You should spend time at the end of the interview, once the recorder is off, to decompress a bit with your narrator and thank them for the opportunity to share their story. Additionally, it is a good idea to send a Thank You card to your narrator, so make sure you have a mailing address.

Document the Process

Document the process, including the preparation and methods used for archival purposes and project development.

At this point, you may have compiled several forms to help you with this process. The links below may not all be applicable to your project.

  • Interview Agreement
  • Narrator/Interviewer Fact Sheet (and/or the more detailed Interviewee Life History Form)
  • IRB Form or Exemption letter (only if your department requires it)
  • Permission to Add Form
  • Proper Words Form
  • Deed of Gift Form
  • Field Notes and Recording Logs
  • Photo Log
Transcribing the Interview 

The level of detail required in your transcription will depend upon your goals and purposes for your oral history project. For example, you will need to decide which disfluencies (any breaks or irregularities such as "uhm," "hmmm..." and so forth) to include in your transcription.

The transcription process takes a lot of time, particularly if you have never done transcription before. There is no hard and fast rule, but by some estimates, one hour of audio or video can take 4-9 hours to transcribe, depending on the subject, number of speakers, and audio quality.

There are a number of free transcription resources available. 

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