How to Conduct an Oral History Interview

Recording an oral history narrative is a great way to preserve someone's personal experiences. Oral histories have been archived detailing people's experiences during the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and other major events in American history. Many genealogists- professionals and amateurs alike- include oral histories of family members to enhance a family tree. There are several steps you can take to ensure success when conducting an oral history interview.

Preparing for the Oral History Interview

Ask the interviewee's permission to record their oral history.

Create a written formal consent explaining the nature of the project and how the narrative will be used in the future if the person whom you're interviewing is someone you don't know personally. If you are interviewing a family member, a verbal agreement may suffice.

Read and sign the consent agreement with the interviewee and give him a copy of the agreement before the oral history interview begins.

Research your subject thoroughly. Decide what your goals for the interview are. If you want to know more about your grandmother's day-to-day life during World War II, it may help to brush up on events from the time period to better frame your questions and paint a clearer overall picture of the narrative.

Write a list of questions for the interview. You don't have to follow this list exactly. It's perfectly normal when recording oral histories for other questions to occur during the course of the interview. However, it helps to arrive with a prepared list so the interview has some structure.

Bring a recording device, such as a voice recorder or video camera, to the interview and test it beforehand to make sure it works properly. Take extra batteries and cassettes, if necessary.

Conducting the Oral History Interview

Secure a comfortable location for the oral history interview, away from noise and distractions. You and the interviewee should be the only people in this location.

Phrase your questions in an open-ended way, so that the interviewee cannot give simple "yes" or "no" answers. Instead of "Were you scared when Grandpa went overseas to fight in the Navy?" ask, "How did you feel when Grandpa went overseas to fight in the Navy?"

Allow the interviewee time to consider each question as it's asked. It may take a few moments for them to recollect certain people or places.

Consider your interviewee's body language. If you're interviewing an elderly person, they may grow fatigued during the course of the interview, in which case you may want to end early and ask if the interview could be continued at a later time. If your line of questioning makes someone uncomfortable, they may not say anything, even though their body language may indicate how they really feel.