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Book Excerpt: Doing Oral HistoryA Practical Guide
by Donald A. Ritchie

Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide

Excerpt from DOING ORAL HISTORY, Second Edition, by Donald A. Ritchie. © 2003 by Donald A. Ritchie. Excerpt posted by arrangement with the author and publisher, Oxford University Press, Inc.

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 interviewing and recording their exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of interviews 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 material can also be posted on the Internet.

Doing Oral History raises many questions and provides answers that address the range of current practices and considerations. Its question-and-answer format is intended not as a catechism of the true faith but as a dialogue between the reader and the author, similar to that of an oral history interview. Questions ranging from the open-ended (“What is oral history?”) to the specific (“Should transcripts reproduce accents and dialects?”) are intended for those conducting group projects, working as individual researchers, establishing oral history archives, videotaping, teaching, and seeking to make use of oral history in various forms of public presentation. These questions have been repeatedly asked at oral history workshops, particularly by those just entering into oral history. The answers offer realistic and practical advice while maintaining the standards that oral historians have collectively devised and promoted. Some questions come from more established practitioners who are reevaluating their methods and missions midway through their projects. The answer seek to be as serviceable to veterans as to novices.

Chapter 1, An Oral History of Our Times, presents the history of oral history, the significance of memory, and the use of oral history in public history. Chapter 2, Setting Up an Oral History Project, discusses funding and staffing, equipment, processing, legal concerns, archiving, and the Internet. Chapter 3. Conducting Interviews, covers preparing for, setting up, conducting and concluding the interview. Chapter 4, Using oral History in Research and Writing, explains oral evidence and publishing oral history. Chapter 5, Videotaping Oral History, includes setting and equipment, and preserving and using the video recordings. Chapter 4, Preserving Oral History in Archives and Libraries, reviews managing oral history collections, sound recordings, digitizing oral archives, donated interviews, legal concerns and public programs. Chapter 7, Teaching Oral History, deals with oral history in elementary, secondary, college undergraduate and graduate education, as well as Institutional Review Boards. Chapter 8, Presenting Oral History, includes community history, family interviewing, therapeutic uses of oral history, museum exhibits, oral history on radio and on the stage, and the Internet.

Excerpt: Chapter 3: Preparing for the Interview

How should an interviewer get ready for an interview?

Familiarize yourself with whatever information is available about the general subject matter and about the people to be interviewed, their families, communities, jobs, successes, and failures. Interviewers first get acquainted with the outline of interviewees’ lives and then allow them to fill in the details. Read any published sources, such as family histories, histories of the town or institution, and histories of the events that the individual experienced, to understand and formulate questions.

Back issues of newspapers and magazines, published or unpublished genealogies, and other sources likely to be found in the local history section of a library or on an Internet web site are natural beginnings for your research. Some interviewees have deposited their papers in a library, although most still have their papers, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia in their closets, attics, and basements. Ask them to make these records available prior to the interview. Others bring relevant memoranda, letters, and photographs to the interview. When all else fails, ask interviewees to give brief descriptions of themselves and to suggest what other sources you might consult. . . .

When preparing a budget, count on doing as many as ten hours of research for every hour of interview conducted. Usually, only the initial interview sessions will require so much advance research. Subsequent interviews will build on the original research and require less preparation time. The cost of preparation decreases when several interviews can be conducted from a single investment in prior research

Is so much research really necessary?

Yes. It is the only way to determine what questions to ask. The more an interviewer knows about the individual and the subject matter, the easier it is to build rapport and conduct the interview. Interviewees become impatient with interviewers whose questions show they do not know the subject matter. . . .

How many questions should be prepared for each interview?

It is safer to have too many questions than too few. Some interviewees talk at great length in response to a single question. During a soliloquy, they may anticipate several questions on the interviewer’s list and discuss these questions without being prompted. Others answer briefly and need several follow-up questions to draw them out. . . . If an interviewer has prepared more questions than time permits, another interview would be in order.

Avoid asking the type of question that elicits a brief answer, such as “You grew up in Grand Rapids?” “Yes.” “And you went to public school there?” “Yes, I did.” Instead of simply verifying your research notes, ask: “What was Grand Rapids like when you were growing up there?” And “Tell me about the schools you attended.” Transcripts that show a string of single-sentence answers indicate poor interviewing techniques. Oral historians seek broader, longer, and more interpretative answers.

Do not ask more than one question at a time; most interviewees would address only one of them. Either the interviewer has to repeat the other half of the question later or it is simply forgotten in the flow of the narrative.

How many times should one person be interviewed?

Single-session oral histories are like “audio snapshots.” Depending on the objectives and budget of your project, try to conduct more than one interview with each person. It often takes more than one interview just to break the ice. Repeated visits help establish an intimacy that encourages candidness. Both interviewer and interviewee need some time together to develop the rapport necessary to ask difficult questions and to give honest answers. . . .

Some interviewees just do not have much to say. They may suffer from “mike fright” and become tense. They may not have been very perceptive. Their memories may be clouded. One interviewee in a nursing home drifted off to sleep twice during his interview, awakening each time the interviewer began to pack up the equipment and continuing the interview as if uninterrupted. There was no second session. Other interviewees will surprise you with their volubility, the depth of their recall, and their articulateness. In these cases, it is best to return for several sessions until the interviewer feels they have exhausted the subject matter. . . .

How long should an interview last?

Unless you are traveling and have a tight schedule that requires lengthier, even full-day sessions, plan each interview session for no longer than two hours. Longer sessions often have a “narcotic” effect on the interviewer, who can become fatigued and distracted. The interviewer will also have trouble listening to what is being said. If prolonged sessions are necessary, arrange for several short breaks to give both parties a rest.

Conducting the Interview

Should questions be arranged chronologically or topically?

The scheme of interviewing depends on the goals of the project. For some projects the entire life story of the interviewee will be relevant; for other projects, the focus will be on the events in which the interviewee participated. For instance, Andrew Young might be interviewed for his entire life, for his tenure as United Nations ambassador, or for his role in the civil rights movement. Biographical interviews usually proceed chronologically. If the focus of a project is on an event, then the questions will be more topical.

Jumping right into the main question is not the best approach. Avoid making the first question too abrupt and confrontational; instead build up to the climactic questions by establishing the historical setting and making the interviewee more comfortable with the process. People tend to recall things chronologically. Set the stage with general questions and then follow with more specific, pointed questions. Strictly topical questions, however, can follow quite appropriately within a chronological framework.

Are open-ended questions preferable to specific questions?

Ideally, interviewers should mix the two types of questions. Your first question should be open-ended, such as “Please tell me about your childhood.” Specific questions can follow: “What schools did you attend?” Starting with too specific a question gives the interviewer too much control of the interview. Interviewers should let the interviewees explain what they think is most significant before beginning to narrow the questions. “The best oral history is a quasi-monologue on the part of the interviewee,” the oral historian Sherna Gluck has observed, “which is encouraged by approving nods, appreciative smiles, and enraptured listening and stimulated by understanding comments and intelligent questions.”

Use open-ended questions to allow interviewees to volunteer their own accounts, to speculate on matters, and to have enough time to include all of the material they think relevant to the subject. Use more specific questions to elicit factual information, often in response to something the interviewee has mentioned while answering an open-ended question. Political reporters and courtroom attorneys use this type of mixed questioning in an approach that has been called “funnel interviewing.” Their search begins with general questions and then constantly narrows until the subject has difficulty not answering the final, more specific questions. Oral history is a much less adversarial means of interviewing, but the funnel approach remains useful when the subject is controversial.

In framing an open-ended questions, the oral historian Charles Morrissey postulates that the two-sentence format often works best. The first sentence should state the problem; the second poses the question: “The records should you were a leader in establishing the zoning laws that shaped this town. Why were zoning laws your objectives?” There are a number of possible follow-up questions: “How did these laws specifically affect your neighborhood?” “How effective would you judge these laws to have been?” “Looking back from today, what would have done differently?” Questions also might relate to specific zoning incidents drawn from newspaper clippings. For such a topic, a map might serve as a good visual prompter during the interview and as appendix material for the transcript.

Keep in mind that interviewers are not restricted to just asking questions. Statements of fact, concise restatements of what the interviewee has said, brief observations and comments can also stimulate responses from the interviewee as well as inject more spontaneity into the discussion. Mixing occasional comments among the questions provides some relief and can prevent the interview from sounding too much like a cross-examination. But interviewers should always use such injections in moderation to avoid skewing the contents of interviews with their own opinions.

The use of open-ended questions has also been cited as a means of “empowering” interviewees, that is, by encouraging interviewees to relate and to interpret their own stories, such questions shift the balance of power from the interviewer to the interviewee. Those who talk of empowerment view the interviewee as an “informant” and the interviewer as a “reporter.” The interviewer may be asking the questions, but the interviewee is actively shaping the course of the interview rather than responding passively. These notions have raised the consciousness especially of sociologists, anthropologists, and linguists who generally do not identify or create fictional identities for their oral sources, and of interviewers who work outside of their own cultures and struggle not to impose their cultural assumptions on the people they observe and interview. . . .

Do differences in race, gender, or age between interviewers and interviewees make any difference in the interview?

Interviewees take the measure of interviewers, make assumptions about what they want to ask, and to some degree try to please them by telling what they want to hear. A study of the Federal Writers Project interviews with former slaves, conducting in the 1930s, discovered that an elderly black woman was interviewed twice, once by a white woman and again by a black man. She gave starkly different accounts of her memories of slavery, painting a relatively benign account for the white woman and a much harsher account for the black man. She may well have spoken even more differently to another black woman.

Differences in age, race, gender, and ethnicity may influence both the questions asked and the responses elicited. There are no prescriptions to overcome such differences. Some may want to match interviewers closely with interviewees, but men and women of different races and ethnicity should be able to interview each other. In seeking to make interviewees feel comfortable, interviewers might reveal a little of themselves–where they live, where they went to school, where they work, what their families do–to establish points of commonality that might cut across some of the barriers between them.

Even without any common reference, the interviewer can compensate by having thoroughly researched the subject and being familiar with names, dates, and events long past. A well-prepared interviewer becomes, for the duration of the interview, a contemporary of the interviewee. “Oh, do you know him?” the interviewee will say, Or “I haven’t thought about that in years.” During the interview, older people seem younger and more animated as they relive the past with a sympathetic listener. . . .

Concluding the Interview

What’s the best way to conclude an interview?

Look for a natural “wrap-up” question, something that causes interviewees to reflect back on their lives, to compare recent events with their earlier years, to draw conclusions about major events, or to look ahead toward the future. As the interviewee whether there are any other issues that could be discussed. Occasionally, an interviewee has anticipated a question that the interviewer did not raise. The interview itself may have triggered memories of long-forgotten people and events that the interviewer may not have researched. Encourage interviewees to put whatever they consider important into the record.

At the conclusion of the interview, remind the interviewee of how the recordings will be processed and where they will be deposited. Explain what their role will be in editing the transcript and in signing the deed of gift. Sometimes the interviewee is asked to sign a release immediately after completing the recording session and another release later approving the transcript. The timing depends on how quickly a transcript can be produced and on whether the interviewee is likely to request that the interview be restricted.

It is customary to present copies of the recording or transcript to the interviewee and to sometimes make additional copies for family members. If the object of the interview is an article or book, try to give a copy to the interviewee. Plan to invite interviewees to exhibit openings or other public presentations based on the interviews.

You cannot simply walk out the door with someone’s life story, their candid reflections, and sometimes extremely personal observations. Interviews can be difficult, emotional experiences, and sometime you need to spend some time to talk with the interviewee after the interview, without the recorder running. Let the interviewees know how important their interviews will be to the oral history project, and reassure them that they were helpful. Give them some idea of how long it will take to process the interview, when they can expect to receive copies of the recording or transcript, when they will sign the deed of gift, how you expect the material to be used, and where the interview will be deposited and opened for research.

Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.

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About the Author

Donald A. Ritchie is Associate Historian in the United States Senate Historical Office, where he conducts an oral history program. A former president of the Oral History Association, he has served on the council of the American Historical Association, and chaired the Organization of American Historians' committee on research and access to historical documentation. He has conducted many oral history workshops, and for ten years, he edited the Twayne oral history series.


Explore online resources from the Oral History Association

Explore online resources the Baylor University Institute for Oral History

Explore the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress

Explore Historical Voices, a significant, fully searchable online database of spoken word collections spanning the 20th century - the first large-scale repository of its kind.

Explore Oral History and Interviews at Cyndi's List


Read The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide, by Marjorie Hunt, from the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Read Planning and Conducting an Oral History Interview, from the UCLA Oral History Program

Order pamphlets from the Oral History Association

Subscribe to the H-Oralhist discussion list, a member of the H-Net, Humanities & Social Sciences On-Line initiative. H-Oralhist is a network for scholars and professionals active in studies related to oral history.
Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.