16 Oral History and the Historical Process
There is an African proverb which goes something like this: “When an old person dies a library burns to the ground.” This proverb perhaps best reflects why the use of oral history has become so important to researchers around the world. Historical researchers over the past several decades have come to realize that everyone (let’s say this again, EVERYONE!) has a story to tell and memories to preserve—memories, like library collections and archival holdings, that help us study and understand the past and will disappear, like materials in a burning library, when an individual dies if they are not saved. The preservation of these memories and people’s life stories is called oral history.
This chapter discusses what oral history is, why we conduct oral history interviews, how oral history methods have evolved, what encompasses the oral history process, how one goes about interviewing people for historical information, and how to evaluate oral interviews and integrate them into your research. There will also be some exercises at the end of the chapter to make you a better oral historian and some useful oral history links and bibliographies for further exploration of the topic.
But first things first…
What Is Oral History?
Oral history can be defined in three different ways. First, the term oral history can refer to a body of information that each person has locked in his or her memory. One’s memory essentially represents some of a person’s life experiences (no one remembers everything) that he/she has lived through and can recall. This is the type of information that the African proverb is referring to and will disappear upon someone’s death.
The second definition sees oral history as a body of literature based on first-person accounts created using an interview process. These oral accounts may be published in either popular and/or scholarly books and articles; be integrated into museum exhibits, TV scripts and programs, or other forms of media; or that exist as archival material in archives, libraries, and other cultural institutions.
The third definition, and the one this chapter will focus on, defines oral history as a method of collecting historical information from individuals who have firsthand knowledge of the subject one is researching. As a method, oral history uses the interview and the familiar Q&A format as a way to preserve historical content.
Oral historians like to say that the oral history method must include four different ingredients to be considered oral history. These are:
- Interviewee. The individual being interviewed for historical purposes is called the interviewee (The person can also be referred to as the subject, narrator, or memoirist.). The interviewee is carefully selected because he/she is an eye-witness to, or a participant in, whatever subject the interviewer is studying.
- Interviewer. The person conducting the interview is called the interviewer. This is the person (probably you as a researcher) asking questions and guiding the interview. This is exciting work, but make sure you are prepared for each interview. Follow the interview guidelines later in the chapter to give yourself the best chance for success.
- Recording Device. To capture the audio of an interview, the interviewer records it using a digital recorder or even a phone with recording capabilities. Recording the interview gives the oral historian options for how best to preserve and later use the interview. For example, the interview can be transcribed, or donated to a library for preservation, or the audio can be indexed for immediate use with the option of transcribing the interview in total at a later date.
- Q&A Interview. We are all familiar with the Q&A format because we are used to seeing people interviewed on TV, in social media, and in other venues. Also, many of us have participated in interviews ourselves, especially when we have applied for jobs. But just because a source is oral doesn’t make it oral history. It is important to emphasize that oral history isn’t the recording of speeches and songs, or the recording of a monologue, or the secret recording of conversations between unsuspecting people. Rather, to be considered oral history, both people are knowingly participating in the Q&A process and speaking for the historical record.
Why Do We Do Oral History?
There are a number of compelling reasons to do oral history interviews to aid in your research, but they all boil down to two basic ones. First, oral interviews can be used to fill in the gaps in the documentary research you are conducting. Let’s face it, books, articles, records, and documents don’t always answer every question a researcher may have. So if you are conducting research on a contemporary topic (let’s say an event, person, subject, etc., that happened in the last 50-75 years) and there are still people alive who were participants or eye-witnesses, then you may want to conduct interviews aimed at helping answer questions that written records are silent about or they don’t give you the complete story. One of the strengths of oral history is that it is one of only a few sources where the researcher has a hand in creating it. This means you as a researcher can ask whatever questions you want to help fill the information gaps. In short, used this way, oral history can be targeted to supplement written records.
The “father” of modern oral history in the U.S., Dr. Allan Nevins, a historian at Columbia University in the mid-twentieth century, used oral history in just this way. He essentially “debriefed” interviewees that he had selected so that their testimonies could fill in the gaps in written records. He also used early tape-recorders to capture their voices, had their interviews transcribed, and he placed the transcripts and later the audio recordings in an archives where they could be used by other researchers. As a result of his efforts, the first institutional oral history project in the U.S. was created at Columbia University in New York City in 1948. The project is still going strong today.
Another reason to use oral history–and maybe even a more exciting one–is to use oral history interviews when there are no written records. Archives, libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions are filled with records and sources that document the elites of the world, such as politicians, successful businessmen, celebrities, leaders, etc. But the majority of people are either undocumented or under-documented, and oral history can be an effective way to capture their stories so they can be added to the historical narrative.
This is the reason why one of the earliest oral history/interview projects in the U.S. in the 20th century focused on interviewing former Southern slaves during 1936-1938. This project was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal designed to put people back to work during the Great Depression. Government-sponsored interviewers fanned out across some of the Southern states to interview former slaves before all of them had passed away (keep in mind this was some seventy years after the end of the Civil War). Called the Slave Narrative Project, more than 2,300 interviews were conducted and transcribed, making it the largest single body of primary sources about slavery where the slaves spoke for themselves about their experiences in bondage. All of the interviews have been preserved by the Library of Congress and are available to researchers in a digital archive.
Another good example of oral history being used to collect the experiences, memories, and observations of mostly undocumented people is the USC Shoah Foundation’s interviews with Holocaust survivors. Famous Hollywood director Steven Speilberg started the project in the 1990s and, over a five year period, volunteers and others collected video oral histories from more than 50,000 individuals from around the world. In addition to documenting the experiences of Jewish survivors, the foundation also interviewed homosexual survivors, Jehovah’s Witness survivors, liberators and liberation witnesses, political prisoners, rescuers and aid providers, Roma and Sinti (Gypsy) survivors, survivors of Eugenics policies, and war crimes trials participants. USC has provided a way for individuals to gain free access to a “small” set of the interviews (more than 3,000) in the archives. The Shoah Project and the Slave Narrative Project represent oral history at its best.
The Oral History Process
Before we cover interview techniques and guidelines in the next section, let’s discuss the oral history process, or the steps to go through when you decide to conduct interviews. The steps are:
- Select your research topic. This is a critical first step and the key to deciding if oral history can be a part of the research process. Keep in mind that oral history aims to interview eye-witnesses to, or participants in, whatever subject you are studying. So if your subject is more than 50-75 years old then there is little chance of using oral history because there will probably not be any potential interviewees still alive. If, however, your topic is recent and there are possible interviewees available, then go to the next step.
- Conduct preliminary research about your topic. Begin to learn more about your topic. Take a look at what has been written by conducting a literature review. Start compiling names and contact information for potential interviewees and record how these individuals relate to your research subject.
- Contact potential interviewees. Prioritize the interviewee list you have compiled, contacting the most important individual or individuals on the list to request an interview. Be sure to explain what oral history is, why you want to interview them, what you plan to do with the information they will give you, and any other pertinent information about your research project. Schedule an interview for a time and place convenient for you and the interviewee. A quiet place is best—a location free from any distractions. [On a side note, consider yourself lucky because beginning in 2018, the federal government exempted oral historians and journalists from going through university Institutional Research Boards’ (IRBs) approval process for conducting “human subject research.” In the past, anyone wanting to use individuals in their research had to go through a fairly long, complicated vetting process seeking approval from a local IRB before they could begin. This vetting process was designed to protect human subjects, especially during medical and other scientific research. Historical research using human subjects is fundamentally different from medical testing, so the federal government has now exempted oral history from IRB vetting.]
- Conduct research on the interviewee and compile an interview outline. The key to a good oral history interview is background research. Before any interview, it is important to conduct as much research as possible so that you know something about the interviewee’s life and how he/she relates to your subject. Once you have completed the research, then create an interview outline, placing the most important subjects that you want to ask about first and so on. Some students may prefer to write a list of questions, but, in any case, think about the order of the questions/subjects and how you would like the interview to unfold. It may not unfold the way you think it will, but it is important to think about the interview as a whole before you talk to the interviewee.
- Practice with the recorder. Before meeting with the interviewee, make sure you know how to operate the recorder. In fact, by the time of the interview, the recorder’s operation should be second nature to you. Getting into an interview and fumbling around trying to figure out how to start, pause, stop, reverse, set recording levels, etc., is a no-no!
- Record an introduction before each interview. Each recorded interview should be preceded by an introduction giving some basic information about the interview and the participants. Something along this line will work: “This is (your name) interviewing (interviewee’s name) for a research project focusing on (the subject of your research). Today’s date is (give date here) and I am at (location of the interview). I am here to talk with (name of the interviewee/Mr. or Ms. So-in-so) about his/her involvement with (your subject). Hello Mr./Ms, (last name). Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed today. Begin your first question.”
- Conduct the interview. See the next section “Interviewing Basics.”
- Get an interview agreement signed. Before any interview, prepare an interview agreement form for your interviewee to sign, The reason for an agreement form is that the interview is protected by U.S. copyright law as soon as it has been completed and is fixed in a “tangible form.” This fixed form can be a digital audio file (recording), or a transcript, or both. This means the interviewee owns his/her words and should formally transfer the copyright of these words to you so that you can quote directly from the interview should you choose. This is especially important if you are planning to “publish” any of your research at a later date. Publishing in this context can be anything from quoting in social media to producing a scholarly product like a book, article, or exhibit text (the Oral History Association has a brief explanation of copyright law). SAADA has a sample interview release form to use.
- Send a thank you. After the interview, be sure to send a thank you to the interviewee for participating in your research project. Maintaining contact with the interviewee may also help you in the future should you run into problems interpreting or using the information in the interview. You might need help in clarifying a concept, or figuring out a name, or spelling a word you are unfamiliar with.
- Transcribe the interview (optional). You may want to transcribe the interview to make it easier to use. If you do, then make sure you adhere to a set of common guidelines for the transcribing process. Baylor University’s Center for Oral History has placed its guidelines online. They are some of the most comprehensive available and have evolved over the past fifty years. They are also easy to follow. If you are conducting oral history interviews for the Texas Disability History Collection housed in Special Collections of the UT Arlington Libraries, then use the guidelines that Dr. Sarah Rose Director of UT Arlington’s Disabilities Studies Minor, has compiled (see Dr. Rose for these guidelines).
- Evaluate and use the interview. See the section below titled “Evaluating Oral History Content.”
Before you sit down to conduct an interview, decide what kind of interview you are planning to do. Basically, there are two types of oral history interviews. The first is a biographical interview. These interviews focus on an interviewee’s entire life, and usually take a great deal of time to do properly. In biographical interviews, the interviewer covers all of the major parts of an interviewee’s life, including his/her childhood, education, growing up, career, family life, etc. Not surprisingly, such interviews often take several sessions to complete.
The second type of interview is the topical interview. This interview focuses on how the interviewee’s life intersects with your research topic. Most students who are using oral history for a research paper will be conducting topical interviews. While you do want to record some basic biographical information about each interviewee even in topical interviews, the main focus should be to ask questions that reveal how the interviewee has impacted your topic or witnessed something about your subject. In this way, you are creating another primary source to analyze and use when writing your research paper.
Regardless of the type of interview you plan to conduct, students should understand that interviews are a two-way process. Some call this a “transactional process,” where the interviewee is giving information (by answering questions), but so is the interviewer. Not surprisingly, the interviewer’s gender, race, language, clothing, age, appearance, and other factors telegraph certain pieces of information to the interviewee, and this information can shape what the interviewee remembers or is willing to discuss. For example, some interviewee’s may be willing to tell a female interviewer something that they would never tell a male interviewer, and, of course, vice versa. While there is not much one can do about this, just be aware of the signals you may be sending to the interviewee and try to make your questions professional, neutral, and free from bias of any kind. Also, keep your language appropriate to the educational level of your interviewee and as free of jargon as possible.
Oral historians have often wished that interviewing techniques could be distilled down to a few basic guidelines that would guarantee usable interviews, but, alas, no such magic guidelines exist. Interviews can vary wildly in terms of quality, even when interviewing the same interviewee over multiple sessions! After all, people are people—we have good days and bad days, and this can be reflected in what and how we remember.
What follows, however, are some interview guidelines that, if followed, will give you, as the interviewer, the best chance for success.
Research, research, research. As mentioned above, good background research is one of the keys to a good interview. Follow the paper and digital trail about your interviewee and the topic you will be asking about. Know where the gaps exist in the written records and try to fill these gaps at the very least. If there are no written records—or precious few—then follow the journalistic method by asking when, who, what, where, and how questions about your topic. Never—NEVER—go into an interview cold having done no research!
Establish a relaxed atmosphere. As stated above, pick a location for the interview that is quiet, free from distractions, and convenient. If possible, there should only be the two of you (interviewee and interviewer) participating in the interview.
Build and maintain rapport. Trust is an important part of the interview process. The interviewee will reveal more information if he/she trusts you as an interviewer. If the interviewee wants to avoid certain topics, then abide by their wishes. If they tell you something is “off the record,” then make sure it is kept “off the record.” Always keep in mind that the interview is the interviewee’s show—it is their memories and their point of view—you are trying to preserve.
Ask easy questions first. Give interviewees a chance to relax and get comfortable with the process, so ask easy questions first. These first questions should be biographical questions that are easy to answer, like when and where the interviewee was born. Where he/she went to school? The names of his/her parents? Etc. Save more difficult questions for later in the interview.
Follow your outline, BUT be flexible. Follow the interview outline (or the written questions) that you prepared, but always be flexible and adaptable. Interviewees may not answer questions the way you think they will. Be willing to follow them if they veer off topic, at least early on, to see if their wanderings lead to useful information. If they do, then continue to follow and ask follow-up questions about the new topic. If they don’t after a few times, then try to guide the interview back to the topics on your outline.
Ask open-ended questions and only one at a time. An open-ended question is one that can’t be answered with a yes or a no. Sometimes they may not even be questions. For example, you might get more information by saying “Tell me about your time as a captain of the Texas Rangers” as opposed to asking “Were you a captain in the Texas Ranger?” If you happen to ask a close-ended question, don’t worry too much because you can follow it up with other questions if you have to. Also, ask only one question at a time and keep the language simple. This will allow the interviewee to easily understand the point of the question.
Ask questions that your interviewee can answer. One of the reasons background research is so important is that it will hopefully reveal your interviewee’s relationship/connection to the event and/or topic you are researching. Knowing this information, you can tailor your questions to specifically probe the interviewee’s memory about your topic and his/her involvement with it.
Listen actively. Active listening is hard work, but you have to do it when conducting an oral history interview. Keep in mind that as the interviewer, you are responsible for guiding the interview and asking the questions. This requires you to listen closely to what is being said, and, just as importantly, to determine what is not being said. Careful listening allows you to ask follow-up questions to clarify comments or pursue other lines of questioning. If during an interview your attention begins to wander from the interviewee’s answers, then it is time to end the interview and continue it at a later date.
Don’t argue. As the interviewer, you can challenge information from the interviewee, but don’t argue with him or her. Instead, challenge deftly in a non-confrontational way. For example, if an interviewee’s answer to a question goes against what your research shows or what other interviewees have said, then try asking for an explanation. You might say something like this, “Other sources have said this incident occurred this way, rather than the way you remembered, can you help me understand why your view is different?”
Watch for fatigue. Interviewing requires a lot of work and mental energy and can be tiring after a while. Watch for fatigue in the interviewee (especially if they are elderly) and yourself (as mentioned above, when your attention begins to wander). Keep most oral history interviews to between an hour and an hour-and-a-half, shorter if either one of you is tiring.
Don’t worry about silence. Try not to worry about periods of silence during the interview. Give the interviewee time to think about his/her answers before interrupting his/her thought process. Oftentimes you might be asking an interviewee to recall events/people from 50 or more years ago, so cut them some slack and give them time to remember.
The Nature of Oral History Sources
As you are learning in this course, historians analyze the quality and veracity of sources all the time (see earlier chapters for a review of this process)…and it is no different with oral sources. They too have to be evaluated for their dependability and accuracy. But, oral history sources also have a number of characteristics that make them different from many of the more traditional written sources that we are used to using in our research, like books, archival documents, newspapers, photographs, etc.
Some of the characteristics of oral sources are as follows:
Oral sources are personal and subjective. Oral sources are good at revealing the feelings and impressions about events, actions, and people from the interviewee’s perspective. Since the interviewee is talking about the details of his/her life and the interpretation of the details, these interviews have a deeply personal meaning to the interviewee. Some historians argue that written records are good about telling what happened in the past, while oral testimony is best at telling how people felt about what happened.
Oral sources are collaborative. Oral history interviews are collaborative in the sense that two people—an interviewee and interviewer—are working together to produce a single primary source. This is one of only a few sources where a researcher can shape the source based on the questions he/she is asking and based on the knowledge about what other sources on the subject already exist.
Oral sources are retrospective. Michael Frisch, Professor Emeritus at the University of Buffalo, argues that oral interviews are usually a dialogue between the past (the history being remembered and recalled) and the present (the act of remembering and interpreting the past based on one’s life experiences up to the time of the interview). Frisch goes on to say that oral history can produce what he calls “more history,” that is sources much like some written personal sources (e.g. memoirs, personal journals, autobiographies), but it can also be “anti-historical,” by allowing interviewees to interpret their own history free from the analysis and conclusions of historians.
Oral sources are oral. DUH! This is obvious, but the point is that the audio interview reveals more details and information than a transcribed version of the interview. Indeed, listening to a person talk conveys more meaning through voice inflections, sarcasm, sadness and happiness in tone, changes in volume and timbre, etc. The irony of oral history is that most researchers, when given the option of listening to an interview or reading the transcript, will opt for the transcript because of time constraints. Pity because they may be missing some important oral clues!
Oral sources depend on memory. In the mid-twentieth century, as historians experimented with oral history as a method of collecting historical information, some scholars criticized its reliability as a source because it was based on memory, and, as we all know, memory can be malleable, elastic, and can change over time. In short, memory can be fallible. Since those years, however, memory studies have shown that most memories are shaped just a few minutes after an action or event has taken place, which calls into questions all types of sources, not just retrospective oral sources. This is why historians insist that all sources (ALL!) must be analyzed and evaluated during the research process…and this includes oral sources too. Just because someone says he/she was there doesn’t make it true, and just because someone was there doesn’t mean his/her understanding of what happened is accurate. This is why it is best while conducting historical research to cast a wide net and look at as many different types of sources as possible.
Evaluating Oral History Interviews
Now that you are more familiar with the oral history process and may even be considering conducting interviews, or at least using some interviews that have already been archived, you might be asking yourself “how do I use these interviews in my research?” Don’t fret because evaluating oral history interviews is not much different than evaluating other types of historical sources. When assessing oral accounts, ask the following questions:
What is the reliability of the interviewee? When looking at the interview as a whole, has the interviewee been consistent and reliable throughout the session/s or has his/her story been inconsistent and changing? Did the interviewee take the interview seriously, being careful to answer questions fully and with attention to details?
Can the recollections be verified? As with other sources, can the interviewee’s account be verified and corroborated through the use of other sources, including other oral sources?
What is the interviewee’s relationship to the subject? We usually give more credence to an account if the interviewee is a direct participant in the event or was an eye-witness, as opposed to hearing about the event from someone else.
Does the interviewee have a personal stake in a particular point of view? If the interviewee is predisposed to have a bias or his/her professional or personal reputation depends on a particular interpretation of an event, then check the veracity of the account carefully. Do the same if someone has an “axe to grind” about another individual.
What was the physical condition of the interviewee at the time of the interview? Can you tell if the interviewee was in good health during the interview? Were his/her memories sharp, clear, and easily remembered, or were they belabored, halting, and difficult to recall?
Helpful Oral History Links
Below are some links to a few professional organizations for people interested in oral history and also some websites about oral history in general.
Canadian Oral History Association
Oral History, History Matters Website
Oral History Association (U.S.)
Oral History Society (Great Britain)
Texas Oral History Association
UNC Writing Center, Oral History
Oral History Bibliographies
What follows are a few links to bibliographies that include some of the more important published sources about oral history. There is now a huge body of literature about oral history, but these bibliographies are selective and include only the most impactful books.
An Oral History Bibliography, A Research Guide by the Columbia University Center for Oral History, 2009.
Selected Bibliography of Books on Oral History, UC Santa Cruz University Library, nd.
Paul Thompson, a British oral historian and author of one of the seminal books on the subject titled The Voice of the Past: Oral History, first published in 1978 and in its fourth edition, talks about the power of oral history and its potential transformative impact, when he writes:
Oral history is not necessarily an instrument for change; it depends upon the spirit in which it is used. Nevertheless, oral history certainly can be a means for transforming both the content and purpose of history. It can be used to change the focus of history itself, and open up new areas of inquiry; it can break down barriers between teachers and students, between generations, between educational institutions and the world outside; and in the writing of history…it can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words, a central place. (1st edition, p. 2)
We couldn’t have said it any better!