"'Tell Me Your Life Story and Sign This
Form': Methods and Ethics of Oral History Collection"
by Ailecia Ruscin and Sherrie Tucker
The Hall Center for the Humanities Oral History Workshop March 12,
Organizing an Oral History Project
- Pick a Topic and Develop a Work Plan
plans can include the following:
compile a board of advisors, select interviewers, decide how much
research to do, find transcribers, decide the number of interviewees you
will need to interview to get enough information for the project, decide
how long the interviews will need to be, finding funding, establish a
timeline for yourself, do paperwork necessary for permissions (recent
decisions have been made that exclude oral history from getting permission
from Internal Review Boards—there is information available at the Oral
History Association website: http://omega.dickinson.edu/organizations/oha/org_irb.html).The Oral History Association still
advocates securing informed consent prior to the interview, and a signed
legal release at the conclusion of the interview. Design a form that protects you and your
interviewees by making sure you both understand the agreement you are
making by embarking on the interview. An oral history is a historical document. The person you interview should be aware
of how it will be used, who will have access to it, and whether it will be
placed in an archive or library, and whether they have the right to withdraw
it or change it at any time.
- Keep a Project Journal
is a good way to keep track of everything that goes on with the
project. Take notes about pre- interviews, take notes after interviews, etc.
everything you need to know about the topic and time period
- when interviewing an “important” person from a
movement or a famous person, some interviewers find it best to appear
knowledgeable to gain the trust of the interviewee, but there is no need to
present yourself as an equivalent—let them teach you things in the interview
- when working with a “regular” person, some
interviewers find it best to appear not too knowledgeable so that interviewees
will feel like their perspective is important and valid even if it goes against
the grain of what is already known about that particular historical moment
the literature search (books, newspapers, archival records)
interviews with collaborators,
friends, etc. might be important for some interviews
interviewers suggest putting together an advisory board of people that
they can rely on to bounce ideas off of and other suggest an advisory
board of people who are knowledgeable about the subject or have been a
part of the movement so that you can use them to help you find other interviewees
- Find Interviewees
first step is to find the first person to interview. This person will hopefully be someone
who can give you the names and contact information for other people to
them about the project
the purpose of the interview
the use of a transcript (some people let interviewees see the transcript
and edit it and others don’t, establish the way in which it will be done
the release form.
if you are going to have a pre-written questionnaire for your interview,
if so, decide if you want to give this list of
question to the person beforehand or not. If you decide to send them the
questionnaire, use the pre-interview to ask them if they have any
questions about it. (Some interviewers like to use consistent
questionnaires, while others decide to leave it malleable. Some think that sticking to a
questionnaire limits the story to only what you know about a topic.)
interviewees will go ahead and start telling their story before the tape
has been turned on, be warned, you might need to learn how to cut people
off and ask them to save it for the interview.
people ask for names of friends and family to do background interviews
first so that you can reference these in your interview.
the night before to confirm
- The Interview
sure that you have all the equipment you need. Bring extras of everything
you have access to (especially tapes & batteries!) (Tape Recorder, Microphone, Extension
Cord, Batteries, Tapes, Camera [to take pictures of documents or
photographs they may show you])
your interviewee once again about how the interview will be used, and
secure their informed consent before beginning. Remind the interviewee that they do not
have to talk about anything they don’t want to, that it is okay to turn
off the recording device at any time, make sure you have a clear
understanding about the potential uses of the tape, and an agreement regarding
how the interviewee will be identified in citations of the interview.
interviewers begin the interview by going over with the person how you
will be constructing the interview—this helps level out the playing field
and helps people to feel more comfortable.
interviewers get the background of each interviewee, especially if the
story is focused only on one time period or one movement. You can start off chronologically,
starting with family background, grandparents, parents, (this helps them
to relax and takes about 5-30 min.), family history, childhood, education,
work history, community. These things can help later on when interpreting
their stories for your work.
key documents or photographs to help jar memories
period questions: What movies were you going to see? What clothes were
people wearing? Mass culture experiences help you get to other
one question at a time. If you ask
more than one, they usually will only answer one of them.
someone is stuck on a question about a person, ask them what they look
like, this will help them remember stories.
Silences. Important information might follow a silence.
Time Off: take breaks to regroup or to gain composure
ways to challenge their story, sometimes you need to announce, “I’m going
to interrupt you”
asking “big questions” about race or other difficult issues: break it up
to get at the question from various ways. Save these “big questions” for
the end after rapport has been established.
- Make references
to background interviews because the interviewee already knows about them
and it helps create a culture of collaboration
and the interviewee should sign the release.
do we leave people after they’ve talked to us about their
experiences. Don’t rush out the
door, help them find closure.
respectful and follow-up
a transcript back to them if you promised it
people a copy of their tape or video to share with their family and
- How to Use the Interview
are many things to think about when doing oral history. Some people want to record stories and
present them in a full form to the public. Some people transcribe interviews and turn them into narratives
that appear to the reader to be written directly from the words of the
interviewee, but have been rearranged from multiple interviews and
re-assembled to sound readable. Others prefer to use direct quotes from interviewees.
people print only the interviews and do the analysis later or not at all,
while others do analysis of interviews within the text. Decide whether or not to use short
quotes from interviews or long passages. Do you include your questions in the text? Think about all of these ethical issues
of the power relationship between the interviewee and the interviewer.
Disk recorder vs. Tape recorder: Mini Disk recorders digitally record the interview. They provide good sound and a digital
format which is helpful when making a museum exhibit or website. But mini disk recorders cost more money
and require more knowledge of computers. You will need a computer program called Stop/Start to transcribe
the tape. Tape recorder are okay. One of the most important things to do
when using a tape recorder is to use a plug-in microphone instead of the
internal microphone which is usually going to provide a low-quality
sound. When looking to buy a tape
recorder, try to find one that has both a place to plug in an external
microphone and a place to plug in headphones. If you use headphones during
the interview you can hear the quality of the recording and no how to better adjust the microphone or
placement of the cord to decrease external noise.
to buy a nicer microphone. Ones
that can be attached to the lapel of the interviewee are good for
Regional Oral History Association Office at Berkeley has a great online
bibliography for oral history: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/bib.html
Michael H., A Shared Authority:
Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany, NY: State University of New
York Press, 1990). Includes a chapter on how to prepare a
manuscript from oral history interviews. In it Frisch recounts the process, which is usually invisible to
- Gluck, Sherna and Daphne Patai, ed. Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of
Oral History (New York: Routledge, 1991). A
collection of 13 essays on interviewing technique, interpretation, and advocacy issues by two generations
of feminist oral historians.
Robert, and Alistair Thomson, editors, The Oral History Reader (New
York: Routledge, 1998). A collection of essays exemplifying many
approaches to conducting and working with oral histories.
Donald A., Doing Oral History.
(New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995). Practical advice on oral history--planning, conducting,
videotaping, preserving, teaching,
presenting, and using in research and writing.
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