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Conducting an Oral History

Overview of Process

  • Ask the narrator (the person telling her life story) to participate.
  • Research narrator's background; prepare a list of topics.
  • Try to arrange a series of conversations (minimum 2) that include only you and the narrator.
  • Obtain signed release agreement at first meeting.
  • Record the conversations.
  • Get conversations transcribed or prepare a disc copy.
  • Review transcript or disc; then get narrator to review (if she wishes)
  • Deposit corrected transcripts, discs, and release agreements in the appropriate library, archives, or historical society.
  • Provide a copy of the disc to the narrator.
  • An hour and a half interview is the maximum length. Try to visit more than once. View your commitment as a series of in-depth conversations. As a trusting relationship builds between recorder and narrator, a richer oral history is created.

Your Role as Interviewer

  • Choose a quiet, private place to meet that is comfortable to the narrator
  • Answer narrator questions and obtain signature on consent agreement.
  • Research the narrator’s life: be an informed conversationalist, be able to recognize the paths you need to follow as they come up.
  • Take topics, photos, and clippings from your research to interview.
  • Start with what you know about the person
  • Develop rapport but remain non-judgmental.
  • Ask only one question at a time and ask brief questions.
  • Ask open questions: “Tell me about your first years on the farm”; do not  ask questions that can be answered yes or no
  • Ask who, what, where, when, why, how: assume nothing
  • Listen carefully for new topics to pursue and use silence effectively.
  • Don’t interrupt a good story!
  • Share yourself and your experiences and understanding, make it as conversational as possible.
  • Ask for examples and anecdotes as illustrations.
  • Save the delicate questions and topics until you become better acquainted.
  • Do not challenge accounts you think may be inaccurate. Get as much information as possible and check it out later.
  • Collect and note names of others who could be interviewed.
  • Ask if the narrator is interested in reviewing the interview disc; and if they have a collection they would consider donating to the archives.

Tips For Recording the Interview

  • Ensure that equipment is functioning properly (do a test with your voice and erase) and ready before your narrator arrives.
  • Begin each tape by stating narrator’s full name, the place and date of the conversations and the recorder’s name.
  • If using batteries make sure they are new and carry spares with you.
  • Use a lapel or remote microphone that is attached to the recorder.
  • Make the recorder as unobtrusive as possible so narrator is not distracted by it.
  • Try to record accurate names of places, persons and dates and if in doubt, get narrator to spell names.
  • Do not switch the recorder off and on, and try to avoid “off the record’’ information sharing.
  • If the narrator changes her mind about being recorded once she is at the interview, then do the interview anyway and take notes. At the end of the interview ask if the person would be comfortable recording at the second visit.

Ethical Responsibilities of the Interviewer

  • oral history is a cooperative activity, you are equal partners in this venture
  • you are relationship-building: listen and interact with attention and respect, do not pressure the narrator to consent or to answer
  • the conversations can be a special occasion for the narrator, they can be therapeutic and empowering, but they can also activate painful memories so be sensitive to emotions and respect a need for recovery, for pauses, or possibly stopping the recording
  • note any contentious statements that might cause legal problems and review those after the interviews, then ask the narrator if she wants them removed

In the Ideal Oral History Conversation

You capture a VOICE, a unique voice: each person’s experience is unique You lay aside assumptions and are open to learning from the person

It is multi-layered:

  1. it is narrative - tell me your story about ….
  2. it explores the meaning of the narrative – how did you feel when…..
  3. the narrator gains insight through telling the story, through reflection, through connection to you and your experience   
  4. a shared understanding of the narrative develops, complete with its insights and its meaning - it is a two- way conversation

It is conversation at a deeper level than every day conversation that requires:

ACTIVE LISTENING   - listening with you whole self: your ears, your mind and your heart, your body

PRESENCE - you are genuine, attentive and your focus is singular

ENGAGEMENT– at an emotional level; but also be an informed conversationalist, be able to recognize the paths you need to follow as they come up

BUILDING a relationship:  work with compassion, empathy and fidelity to the narrator’s sense of her own truths, be faithful to her story

Contact us if you want more information on collecting oral history.

Student & Academic Services for The Alberta Women's Memory Project - Last Updated May 20, 2016

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