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Oral history

Related subjects: General history

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Oral history can be defined as the recording, preservation and interpretation of historical information, based on the personal experiences and opinions of the speaker. It may take the form of eye-witness evidence about the past, but can include folklore, myths, songs and stories passed down over the years by word of mouth. While it is an invaluable way of preserving the knowledge and understanding of older people, it can also involve interviewing younger generations.

The Modern Tradition of Oral History

Contemporary oral history involves recording or transcribing eyewitness accounts of historical events. Some anthropologists started collecting recordings (at first especially of Native American folklore) on phonograph cylinders in the late 19th century. In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sent out interviewers to collect accounts from various groups, including surviving witnesses of the American Civil War, Slavery, and other major historical events. The Library of Congress also began recording traditional American music and folklore onto acetate discs. With the development of audio tape recordings after World War II, the task of oral historians became easier.

In 1942 the New Yorker published a profile of Joseph Gould, who claimed to be collecting “An Oral History of Our Time.” Although Gould never produced this work, the magazine story about him popularized the term oral history. In 1948 Alan Nevins, a Columbia University historian, established the Columbia Oral History Research Office, with a mission of recording, transcribing, and preserving oral history interviews. In 1967 American oral historians founded the Oral History Association, and in 1969 British oral historians founded the Oral History Society. There are now numerous national organizations and an International Oral History Association, which hold workshops and conferences and publish newsletters and journals devoted to oral history theory and practices.

Historians, folklorists, anthropologists, sociologists, journalists, and many others employ some form of interviewing in their research. Although multi-disciplinary, oral historians have promoted common ethics and standards of practice, most importantly the attaining of the “informed consent” of those being interviewed. Usually this is achieved through a deed of gift, which also establishes copyright ownership that is critical for publication and archival preservation.

Oral historians generally prefer to ask open-ended questions and avoid leading questions that encourage people to say what they think the interviewer wants them to say. Some interviews are “life reviews,” conducted with those at the end of their careers, others are focused on a specific period in their lives, such as war veterans, or specific events, such as those with survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

The first oral history archives focused on interviews with prominent politicians, diplomats, military officers, and business leaders. By the 1960s and ‘70s, interviewing began being employed more often when historians investigate history from below. Whatever the field or focus of a project, oral historians attempt to record the memories of many different people when researching a given event. Interviewing a single person provides a single perspective. Individuals may misremember events or distort their account for personal reasons. By interviewing widely, oral historians seek points of agreement among many different sources, and also record the complexity of the issues. The nature of memory–both individual and community–is as much a part of the practice of oral as are the stories collected.

How do I undertake an oral history interview?

Your project

When planning a project you will have to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What will the end result be?
  • How many people should be involved?
  • What sort of resources are available?
  • Who should I interview?

You will also have to gain access to some recording equipment and learn how to use it.

Who should you interview?

Try to get a good cross-section of the population you are looking at – men/women, workers/management, clerical/engineering etc. Bear in mind that someone who is shy and retiring may have just as much to say as the louder, more outgoing person. Estimate the amount of people you will interview. Take into account the time you will spend planning, conducting, and writing up each interview. Contacts can be made by word of mouth, through the media, or via local groups. One interview often leads to another by word of mouth, although you may not wish to go too far down this road as, depending on your project, you may want to seek out people with different points of view and different backgrounds.

Before the interview

If possible, a preliminary telephone call will enable you to chat to your interviewee briefly about the subjects you want to cover, arrange where and when your interview will be, and make sure they can identify you and you them. You can also decide how much time is available to you both.

Should you do any research before the interview?

You should certainly know something about the subject you are going to talk about. If the subject is your local village then you probably won’t need to do any extra research, but if it’s beekeeping it would be polite and useful to have a quick look through a book on the subject. The only danger with knowing something about the topic is that you may not ask certain questions because you think you already know the answer.

Finally, before you set off for your interview, make sure you have told someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. Your safety is very important and if at any time you feel uncomfortable in a situation, you should make your excuses and leave.

The interview

Have you got everything? Directions to where you are going; recording equipment (including microphone); power supply/batteries; cassettes/mini discs; paperwork; something to prove your identity. First impressions are important. If you are presentable and polite it will make a big difference to the proceedings. Chat before the interview but try to avoid the interviewee telling you any anecdotes that would be better told during the recording.

Starting the interview

Check your interviewing environment – is there a potential for sounds that will interfere with your recording? Clinking tea cups, panting dogs, chirping budgies, chiming clocks, even traffic passing by can disrupt a recording. If possible, try and choose a quiet environment. If you can, position the recording device out of sight of your interviewee. Always test sound levels – this may alert you to any failing batteries or poor connections. At the beginning of the interview you should record details of who you are talking to and when. If you subsequently lose all the paperwork the basic information should be on the tape/disc.

Asking questions

A schedule or list of questions is a good idea at the start of a project although you may find you don’t need one as time goes by. Be careful not to stick to a list of questions too rigidly, let the conversation flow naturally.

  • Ask ‘open’ rather than ‘closed’ questions. Easy to say but not always easy to

do. An example of a closed question – a question which invites a yes/no answer – would be ‘You felt terrible didn’t you?’. An ‘open’ question would be ‘How did you feel?’ followed up with, ‘Why did you feel like that?’ if necessary.

  • Use plain words and avoid suggesting the answers: ‘How did you feel about

working as a housemaid?’ rather than ‘It must have been awful having to be a servant’, and ‘Can you describe your childhood?’ rather than, ‘I suppose your childhood was poor and unhappy?’

  • Maintain eye-contact. This shows you are interested and enables you to

encourage your interviewee with visual cues rather than speaking over the recording.

  • Clarify odd words or things you are not sure about – phrases like ‘cutting the

vamp’ (the boot and shoe trade). If you don’t ask at the time you may never know!

  • Don’t be afraid to ask, but don’t interrupt or butt in. Make a mental or physical

note to ask later. Particularly with older people, leave a pause at the end of their sentences as they may not have finished speaking.

  • Respect people’s opinions even if you don’t agree with them. This is not the

time for you to debate your political or cultural opinions with someone.

  • Be aware of tiredness – not just the exhausted 96 year old you have been

grilling for three hours, but your own tiredness as well. Take a break or come back another day.

After the Interview

If possible, it is polite to have a chat after the interview. You can confirm any future appointments, explain what is going to happen to the interview, and say what the plans for your project are.

You should ask the interviewee to fill in the copyright form. Label the cassettes/discs and write up a summary or a transcript of the interview. Think about storing the material you have collected and make a copy of the tape/disc. You could also write a letter of thanks to the interviewee and offer them a copy of the interview. Above all, listen to the interviews you do with a critical ear and keep interviewing!

Notable Theorists

  • Milman Parry
  • Albert Lord
  • Eric A. Havelock
  • Marshall McLuhan
  • Walter J. Ong
  • Wendy Wickwire
  • Ronald Grele

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