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Oral History

Interviewing people who were eyewitnesses to history brings life to facts you find in other primary sources. But to get more than "yes," "no," and "uh-huh," learn to ask the right questions!

Before your interview

Step 1: Set a goal

Set a goal—not too general and not too specific—that can be accomplished in a 60–90 minute interview.

Step 2: Make contact

  1. Find a source person ("interviewee" or "narrator") who knows something about your subject. Talk to people from different sides of controversial subjects.
  2. Call your source person. Introduce yourself, explain your project, and your goal for the interview. Ask if he or she would agree to be interviewed.
  3. Arrange a time and place for the interview.
  4. Invite your interviewee to bring photos, scrapbooks, or anything else that might provoke memories and stories.


Step 3: Plan your questions

1. Brainstorm questions that will help you reach your goal.

Plan a variety of questions, since each question word asks for a different kind of response:

  • "What" asks for a noun: a person, place or thing;
  • "What...doing" asks about an action;
  • "Where" asks about a place;
  • "Who" asks about people;
  • "When" asks about time;
  • "Why" asks for reasons;
  • "How" asks about a process.

Request general information by asking:

  • "Describe..."
  • "Tell me about..."
  • "Explain..."

2. Rewrite and organize:

  • Sort out repetitive questions;
  • Rewrite unclear questions;
  • Rearrange the questions in a logical order.

Step 4: Practice

1. Read your questions out-loud so you are comfortable with them and you know they make sense.

2. Test your audio- or video-taping equipment so you know how it works. Get extra tapes and batteries.

During your interview

Step 1: Set-up

1. Ask your interviewee to sign a release form so you can use the tape for your project (see release form example).

2. Test the equipment to make sure it works and the interviewee's voice can be heard.

Step 2: Interview

1. Relax, smile, look at the person while you talk!

2. Ask your questions one at a time, pause, pay attention, and listen to the answer.

3. Jot down follow-up questions as the narrator talks to avoid interrupting. Try some of these follow-up techniques:

  • Ask for an example: "What kinds games did you play after school?"
  • Ask for clarification: "Then, did you take a train or a bus to work?"
  • Rephrase a statement into a question: "So, you worked in the mines for 30 years?"
  • Prompt: "Uh-huh." "And..." "What else?" "Tell me about that."

After your interview

Step 1: Listen

1. Listen to or watch your tape right away to be sure the interview recorded.

2. Confirm any facts that were mentioned.

3. Evaluate whether you reached your interview goal:

  • What other questions do you wish you had asked?
  • Where can you find other sources to verify what your interviewee said?
  • What ideas did this interview give you for future research?


Step 2: Log

1. Log your tape: Use the tape counter and write down the number where the stories or answers to your questions start and stop.

2. Index the tape with the date of the interview, the name and address of the person, and your log of its contents.

Step 3: Transcribe and edit

1. Choose sections of the interview for your project:

  • For written projects transcribe excerpts, writing down exactly what they said;
  • For video or audio presentations: edit tape to use just what you need.

2. Find other sources--written or oral-- to confirm what you've learned here.

3. If you fine sources conflicting, look for the reasons and try to explain them (for example, the two sources are from two sides of a dispute, or an interviewee forgot dates, but remembered the emotional impact of a story).

Adapted with permission from material copyright 1983, Susan Donley and Janet E. Turner. All other rights reserved.