This is the "Conducting Oral History Interviews" page of the "African-American History" guide.
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African-American History  

Mrs. Charnes-Martin's students will spend the year diving deep into the role of African-Americans in U.S. history.
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Conducting Oral History Interviews Print Page

What is Oral History?

Oral history is an orderly process used for the collection of memories and personal commentaries of historical signigicance through recorded interviews. Oral history implies that the interviewee is providing first-hand knowledge of an event, person, or experience.

Oral History Association-Oral History Defined

Oral History Association- Best practices


Useful Oral History Websites


Examples of Oral Histories

To gain a better understanding of what an oral history is, read these examples located on PBS' New Americans website. University of North Carolina has put its oral history archives online. Use this finding aid to help you identify more examples of what oral history is comprised of.


Recording the Interview

As part of this project, interviewers should determine what equipment, supplies, and other resources will be needed. What kind of recording equipment will be used? Will there be a need for a secure storage space for the project's equipment and supplies?

Before recording, find a location that is conducive to producing a clear recording.

At the start of each recording session, make a brief opening announcement that specifies date and place of interview, names of the interviewer and interviewee, and the general topic of the interview.

Never record secretly.


Identifying Interview Subjects

Begin your search for perfect storyteller by looking close to home. Parents, grandparents, family members, or family friends may have interesting insights on the research theme. If not family, then think of faculty, church, community leaders, or local business people who might provide intriguing observations about a historical happening.

Invite your storyteller to participate in your interview by writing them a letter or email that contains all of the information that will be needed for the peroson who receives the letter to either agree to participate or suggest someone else as a potential oral history subject. This letter or email should describe what your class project is, what type of story/information you are looking for, and what you will be doing with the interview.

Confirm with your interviewee at least one week before the day of the meeting.


Preparing for the Interview

It is important to conduct background research when preparing for an internview. Having background information allows interviewers to develop questions that will prompt more specific responses. The point of the interview is to obtain unique stories, reactions, and explanations of the historical happening. Read published and vetted resources on your topic. This will help you be better organized and prepared; thus, helping to establish a good rapport between interview and respondant.


Interviewers Reslease Form

It is crucial that students obtain a release form for the intention of confiming that interviewees have given their consent to be recorded and the recordings to be archived and/or used for the purposes of research. Here is an example form from the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project.


Preparing Questions for the Interview

Stay clear of inquiries whose reponse can be a simple "yes" or "no." it is important that the questioner has done a bit of research on the project's theme. This helps the interviewer to write open ended questions that keeps the interview moving along smoothly, obtain responses that stay within the project's theme, and gives a sense of of confidence to both interviewer and interviewee. Open ended questions can also persuade the interview subject to give a more indepth answer.

Open-ended questions should begin with words such as "why" and "how" or phrases such as "What do you think about . . ."

Open-ended questions have the following characteristics:

  • They ask the respondent to think and reflect.
  • They will give you opinions and feelings.
  • They hand control of the conversation to the respondent.

Keep these points in mind when writing interview questions:

  • Keep your questions short
  • Do not ask questions you do not understand
  • Do not ask questions that suggest answers
  • Keep your opinion out of the interview

Here are a series of example open-ended questions that could be used when interviewing a family member.

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The Historian's Toolbox

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The Historian's Toolbox - Robert C. Williams
Call Number: 907.2 W7211h
ISBN: 9780765620262
Publication Date: 2007-04-04
Williams (Davidson College, North Carolina) draws on a long career teaching history to write a text students will find both enjoyable and thought provoking on the methods and tools of the field. The various approaches to history are briefly described in initial chapters. The remainder of the volume considers the tools of history, with well-illustrated sections on sources, credit and acknowledgements, narrative and explanation, interpretation, and speculation. A list of references is included with each chapter.


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