What is oral history?
Oral history has been described as a ‘picture of the past in people’s own words’ and as ‘the voice of the past’.
In practical terms, oral history is a sound recording of an interview, generally in a question and answer format. It is conducted by an informed researcher with a person who has first-hand knowledge of a subject of interest to the researcher.
Why use oral history?
Conducting an oral history interview is another way of researching and gathering information which can be used in museum interpretation. Oral history allows you to record and preserve memories and stories that are not written down on paper. It also provides a human element and a first-hand, eyewitness account. It allows you to learn how things felt, looked and smelled and to understand why people acted in the way they did. By using excerpts of oral history either in sound or text format in displays you provide visitors with links to people with whom they can identify. Hearing or reading about other people’s memories often prompts visitors to revisit their own experiences. This can make their visit to your museum a more enriching experience and also provide further insights which you can incorporate into your interpretation.
Planning an oral history project
Many people have a ‘panic’ response to oral history. They feel the pressure of many aging community members with great stories who need to be interviewed quickly before they are no longer around. So they rush out with an old cassette recorder or their recently acquired personal mp3 player and start interviewing. Because they have not thought about what they want to know, they tend to ask broad generic questions and they end up with broad generic answers. Because they haven’t thought about sound quality, they end up with poorly recorded interviews punctuated by banging teacups, barking dogs, interruptions from other family members and too much of their own voice.
It is important to spend some time planning before you head out to conduct an interview. Whether you are planning a single interview or a series of interviews it is useful to start by thinking about what you are trying to find out.
It is often better to narrow the focus of an interview rather than asking about everything. Think about the people in the community who might be able to tell you about different things.
- If you are trying to gather a picture of your community in a particular era, think about all the different people that make up a community from the leaders down to the people on the ground
- If it is the history of an industry, think of all the different roles people play in that industry and aim for a cross section
- If you are gathering stories and memories of a major event such as a flood or bushfire, think of all those involved, the survivors, the rescuers, the planners, the media, the old, the young etc
- If you are researching a particular skill such as blacksmithing or tailoring, you will need to learn about the trade and become aware of some of the technical terms
- If you are doing a life history interview with an individual, you will need to plan to do some research about the times in which that person lived
Making contact with interviewees
Often you will already know the person you are going to interview. At other times you will learn about them by word of mouth – from another person who recommends that ‘you really should interview Mr Smith’. Sometimes you will come across names in documentary records or newspaper reports and you will need to do some research to find a contact address. You can use electoral rolls and/or the telephone book if it is not too common a name.
Sometimes you will have an idea of what you want to research but not have any potential interviewees. In such cases you may want to use the media to put out a call for people to contact you.
Whatever the case, make sure that you develop a good short outline of the project that you are conducting, what the purpose is and why you would like to interview the person you are approaching. It is often good to introduce yourself and the project by letter as it allows the person to think about their response. If you have a phone number, you can say that you will contact them in a week or so to see what they think about the idea.
Preliminary meeting – getting to know each other
One of the most important and often overlooked parts of an oral history project is the preliminary meeting. This meeting gives you a chance get to know your interviewee a little before you actually record the interview. Even if you already know them personally, at this meeting you can gather further background information about the person and see if they have any documents or photographs that might help you in your research. You can to talk about what the interview will be like and mutually consider any subjects that might be upsetting or sensitive. This is a good time to talk a little about your project and to provide the interviewee with a copy of your Conditions of use form (see below for more on this). You might like to give the interviewee a few insights into the things you might be asking about to get their mind ticking over. Do not give the interviewee a full list of questions. Warn them that the questions may be slightly different when you interview them and let them know that you do not want them to write down their answers as you would like the interview to be spontaneous.
The preliminary meeting also often provides an opportunity to check out the place you are going to be conducting the interview. Many people prefer to be interviewed in their own home, where they feel comfortable. Some might prefer to meet you elsewhere. Wherever you are going to do the interview, listen to the environment. Check for background noises of refrigerators, chiming clocks or barking dogs that might need to be babysat for a day! If you can’t avoid the sounds of a main road, minimize them by sitting your interviewee in a place where the microphone will be directed away from the noise.
Make a time for the recorded interview that will be as free from interruptions as possible.
If you are going to ask sensible and well thought out questions, you need to do some background research. Have a look at the Help Sheet on Historical research for some pointers about how and where to go to conduct research. Use the information you gathered at the preliminary meeting to guide your research. For example, if your interviewee worked as a baker in your town for 40 years, learn a little about the baking trade in the era during which the person was working. Make yourself aware of other bakeries in the district that were also operating. See if the local papers carry any advertisements for products. Think about the kinds of questions you might like to ask. Develop them from what you want to know, what you learned in your preliminary meeting and your background research.
Some people like to write out a list of questions, others can work with a page of keywords which prompt them to ask about certain subjects. If you do write out questions, do not read them out or follow them unwaveringly. The vast majority of questions asked in an interview are unplanned follow-up questions. Use your list flexibly and follow the flow of the interview.
Types of questions
Orientation questions – It is good to start your interview with general questions which establish who the interviewee is and provide a bit of family and social background. These are also easily answered questions which will help both interviewer and interviewee settle into the interview. ‘For example: ‘When were you born?’ ‘Where did you grow up?
Common questions: If you are conducting a number of interviews with different people it is a good idea to ask common questions of each interviewee. These help to gather detailed information on the same themes from different points of view. Being able to compare or contrast people’s memories of an event or place will be very valuable when you develop your interpretation.
Specific questions: These questions reveal the unique aspects of a person’s experience. They are developed from the things you learned at the preliminary meeting and the background research you conducted. For example you might be interviewing a series of long-term business people from your community. While you might ask each of them common questions about being in business in the town, you will ask the baker specific questions about the baking industry and the car salesman about the car industry.
Open ended questions: These are the best kind of questions to ask in an interview as they encourage longer answers and elicit stories. These questions usually begin with:
Closed questions: These questions result in a yes or no answer and are best avoided unless you need them to establish a certain point or to stop the flow or an interview and turn to another subject area. These questions usually begin with:
- Were you
- Did you
Follow-up questions: Most of the questions in an interview are these. Some examples are:
- Tell me more about…..
- Can you explain what you mean by that?
- Can you give me an example of that?
- How did you feel about that?
- In what ways?
Leading questions: Avoid these. It is essential to seek out the impressions and ideas of your interviewee rather than record your own opinions. Rather than use emotive and leading questions such as, ‘Weren’t you afraid?’, ask the interviewee ‘How did you feel?’ Sometimes when you have done a lot of background research, it is tempting to share some of your knowledge. This is not appropriate as you are not the focus of the interview, your interviewee is and by providing information from your research, you may influence or embarrass your interviewee.
Concluding questions: These questions are useful to signal to the interviewee that you are winding up the interview. They also provide an opportunity for summation and overall reflection. They might sound something like:
- Looking back
- Reflecting back
- What do you feel are your strongest memories of…
- Is there anything else you would like to add?
Listening is an art and it is central to an oral history interview.
- Listen quietly. Respond non-verbally with a nod of your head rather than saying ‘yes, yes’.
- Listen patiently. Some of the questions you ask may prompt your interviewee to think about things they haven’t thought of in years. Allow them time to consider, reflect and remember. Pauses can be significant.
- Listen carefully: interviewing can be tiring – thinking about your questions, listening to the interviewee, keeping an eye on the equipment. Be careful not to lapse into other thoughts and lose track of what the interviewee is saying. Stay alert and ready to follow unexpected leads.
- Listen sensitively. Try to remain aware of how your interviewee is feeling. If you notice that they are becoming distressed by a subject, allow them time and if necessary ask whether they would like to stop the interview or have a break.
The preliminary meeting is a good time to discuss whether there might be any questions an interviewee might not want to answer or any subjects they might not want to discuss. You may not always be able to predict when a subject will be sensitive, innocent questions may prompt painful or embarrassing memories without any warning. Before an interview always let your interviewee know that they may stop the interview at any time. Allow time for winding down after the interview if it has dealt with difficult subjects. Ask your interviewee if they would like a family member to be with them after the interview. Be aware too of the distress you may feel when hearing first hand accounts of traumatic experiences.
Timing of interviews
Although some people might like to talk for hours, most oral history interviews range from 1-2 hours in length at one sitting. Any longer and both interviewee and you as interviewer will become tired and less attentive. It is better to come back another time to finish an interview. That will also give you an opportunity to listen to the first interview and make notes about any follow-up questions you might like to ask. The interviewee also has time to reflect further and might remember more. For a life history interview you might return many times. Each time you do, you will develop further rapport.
Defamation is the publication of material which reflects unfairly or falsely on a living person’s character. In respect of an oral history interview, recording defamatory opinions is regarded as publishing them. Interviewers are also liable as they record the words and potentially make them available to the public.
If someone says something that you feel might be defamatory, stop the interview and discuss it. You may need to arrange for deletion of the segment. If the interviewee wants to leave their opinion recorded, it will need to be restricted for some years to protect the interviewee and yourself. Make sure this is noted on the Conditions of Use form and that the public copy of the recording has this section deleted.
If you suspect that the subject you are interviewing about might lead to defamatory commentary then it is a good idea to discuss this with your interviewee at the preliminary meeting.
Conditions of use forms
To conduct an oral history interview ethically, you need to seek permission from your interviewee to use their interview. Developing a written agreement which can be signed by the interviewee is the best way to do this. See the Oral History Handbook, p. 18-19 for some good examples or contact the State Library of South Australia and ask for a copy of their Conditions of Use agreement for the Mortlock Library’s JD Somerville Oral History Collection. The agreement records who holds copyright over the interview, allows the interviewee to place any conditions or restrictions on use of the material and notes where the recording of the interview will be deposited.
The importance of good equipment
It is useful to think of an oral history interview as a ‘sound document’. You are not only recording information, you are recording a voice with all of its character and emotion. You want to record this voice as clearly as possible so that it will last and can be used as sound as well as in written form.
Good equipment can be very expensive. If you are looking to purchase a recorder and microphones, have a look at Chapter 4 of the Oral History Handbook which gives an outline of all you should be looking for in good equipment and rates many well known recorders.
A better and more cost effective way to go is to borrow recording equipment from the State Library of South Australia. Hire is free of charge. The only condition is that you have a training session on how to use the equipment and agree to deposit your original recordings in the JD Somerville Collection. You will be provided with copies for your museum and your interviewee.
Video oral history
This adds the extra element of the visual. However it is important to recognize that oral history interviewing and videoing or filming, are two separate skills. If you want to record visual footage as well as sound, make sure you involve a professional videographer or filmmaker. You will need their assistance with lighting and angles and other aspects of film. Make sure that you still use good quality recording equipment for the voice recording and not just the microphone on the video. It is sometimes better to film only parts of an interview and perhaps other kinds of footage of places as well as photographs or contemporary footage. These can be edited together with excerpts from an interview to create a documentary or a multimedia installation.
Oral history in written form – the transcript
If you are going to be using excerpts from interviews in text form in a display or as quotes in a booklet, you might want to have your interviews transcribed. This means that you have the recording typed up. A transcript makes the information in the interview more accessible for researchers. Remember that people speak very differently from how they write so the transcript will reflect this. Transcribing is a professional skill and can be expensive. If you are going to do it yourself, have a look at the Oral History Handbook (p. 79-81) for pointers.
If you don’t have the funds or the time to produce a transcript, you might be able to create a tap log. This is a listing of the subjects covered by an interview organized in segments of time. For example
0.0 Provides names and background of parents
1.0 Talks about schooldays
4.00 Refers to Mr Brown as his mentor…
Uses for oral history
The ways in which oral history can be used by museums are as limitless as your imagination. Oral history provides you with information and stories in both sound and written form. It can therefore be used in short excerpts as text on a panel or sound in a sound post, it can be used in soundscapes, in multimedia installations and on your website.
Make sure to give your interviewee a copy of the recording of their interview and copies of any transcripts or tape logs that you create. Remember to let your interviewees know what happens with their recordings. Invite them in to see how you have used their material in your display. They will enjoy seeing what has been made of their memories and it is a way of saying thank you.
Oral History Workshops
Oral history interviewing is a skill and it is important to know what you are doing. The South Australian branch of the Oral History Association of Australia [OHAA SA Inc] runs Oral History Skills workshops at the State Library twice a year. Visit the association via its website for details or to make contact. Regional workshops can also be arranged if there is enough interest.
You can also become a member of the Association and receive their newsletter, Word of Mouth which highlights members’ projects and gives advice on all oral history matters.
Oral history professionals
Many historians are trained and very experienced in conducting interviews. Some work as interviewers for the State and National Libraries, so if you don’t want to record the interviews yourself, you might like to hire a professional. Contact History SA, the Oral History Association or the Professional Historians Association for information on consultants.
Oral History Handbook
Beth Robertson’s Oral History Handbook, now in its fifth edition is the ultimate guide to every aspect of oral history. Visit your library for a copy or go to the OHAA SA Inc website to order a copy.