10 Steps To Conducting Oral History Interviews

Reprinted from the National WWII Museum

  • Inform the Interviewee: Before any interview takes place, you should inform your interview subject of the purpose of the interview, the general subjects to be covered, the time and place of the interview, how the interview will be conducted (will it be taped, video taped?), and what will be done with the information.
  • Perform Background Research: You should do appropriate background research on their oral history topic before you conduct an interview. A trip to the library, as well as research on-line, is crucial to make sure that you have a familiarity with the subjects to be covered. An uninformed interviewer is a passive interviewer, unable to control the structure and direction of the interview.
  • Prepare Questions: You should have prepared questions written down. These questions should be broad enough to let the interviewee describe or explain the how, what, where, and why of a subject, but should be limited enough so that the interviewee knows what you are interested in learning.
  • Be an Active Listener: Oral historians must be active listeners. You should be able to monitor the quality of what an interviewee is relating while also listening to clues or inferences that may reveal new areas or topics worth exploring. Don’t just stick to your scripted questions—be prepared to follow up on interesting or important stories or themes if the opportunity presents itself.
  • Take Notes: You should take notes during the interview. Taking notes will give you a chance to jot down new questions as they come to mind. It is also a good idea to write down names used during an interview so you can check for spelling accuracy with the interviewee after the interview.
  • Listen for Inaccuracies: If the interviewee appears to be presenting a much distorted account, you can switch to a negative tack without damaging rapport. Simply state that other sources you have consulted have taken an opposite view and ask the interviewee to comment. Be careful not to directly challenge the knowledge or truthfulness of the interviewee. It is also best to save more personal and sensitive subjects for the middle of the interview when a more relaxed atmosphere has been established.
  • Accept Silence: Expect and accept a little silence. Never rush the interviewee into answering. One of the most common mistakes that novice interviewers make is to repeat or rephrase a question when the interviewee does not immediately respond. Another frequently made mistake is moving on to the next question at the interviewee’s first pause. People often need time to put their thoughts in order. If you allow them a few more seconds, they will probably add more to their earlier statements. Silence can be awkward, but useful.
  • End Strongly: Before the interview concludes, ask the interviewee if there is anything else they would like to tell you that you did not ask about. Conclude by thanking the interviewee for his or her time. If you have taped the interview and agreed to supply the interviewee with a copy, tell him when you will have that tape prepared. After the interview, write a thank-you letter to the interviewee.
  • Label Your Tape: If you are recording your interview, clearly label your tape with the date, the interviewee’s name, and the subject of the interview. It is always a good idea to start your interview by recording a short introduction at the beginning of the tape which includes the above information (labels can fall off): “This is Joe Smith interviewing Mary Jones about her WWII experiences on Thursday, October 9, 2003.” If you have the ability, digitize your tape onto your computer.
  • Transcribe Your Interview: Recording your interview only on tape will not be very helpful to others wishing to use your interviews for further research. Typing out your interview is time-consuming, but important. Not only will it make your interview more accessible to future researchers, but it will oblige you to listen more closely to the content of the interview.

1 thought on “10 Steps To Conducting Oral History Interviews”

  1. Being a novice Oral Historian, I found this site to be very informative and helpful. I understand that being able to carry out this type of research takes much practice, as does any form of research. I look forward to gaining the experience in this field which will allow me to successfully obtain information from those I interview in an ethical and informative manner.


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