What is Oral History?
Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Gathering memories typically means the recording in interview form of personal narratives from people with first-hand knowledge of historical or current events.
Why Conduct Oral Histories?
First-person documentation lends a personal dimension to history by recording ordinary people and everyday life experiences. Some stories may be forgotten and untold narratives. Oral Histories can fill gaps in existing knowledge or history by providing insights based on first-hand memories, experiences, and even beliefs of people. Often, the people chosen for oral history interviews provide a variety of perspectives that may have been overlooked.
Preparing for an oral history interview is perhaps the most important step in the oral history process. Once you have decided upon a topic or event in history, you will need to locate a narrator (also called the interviewee) whose experiences are relevant to your topic. Quality research can create rapport with the narrator and hone interview questions that inspire storytelling. To be prepared for the interview, conduct careful research that is both subject-focused and that contextualizes your narrator within the circumstances of the event or time period you are studying.
Questions that can help you prepare for your interview may include:
You will likely want to develop two types of questions: those that obtain factual information about your narrator/interviewee, and questions that will assist your narrator/interviewee in remembering particular events or circumstances.
Biographical Data: It is common practice to ask some biographical questions at the beginning so that your narrator/interviewee can get comfortable with the interview process and any equipment. Remember to be sensitive to your narrator's needs; some people are not comfortable disclosing age or other personal information.
Open Questions: As the interview progresses your questions may become more concrete and may address more sensitive information. These typically include open questions—meaning that the questions cannot be answered by simply yes or no. Open questions probe for information and seek to trigger stories and memories from your narrator/interviewee. Examples include the typical journalistic what, where, when, who, and how kinds of questions. But they can also include phrases such as:
Note: Objects and photographs can also help to trigger memories, so invite your narrator/interviewee to bring any materials that might help them to explain or describe events. Your narrator/interviewee may even wish to donate such materials to be part of the oral history archive established for your project. Questions are not meant to be followed rigidly; they are a jumping off point for your narrator's stories and memories.
Location: Meeting locations should be safe and comfortable for both parties. You may be able to reserve a conference or other room at your institution or your interviewee may wish to interview at his or her home. Wherever you meet, it's a good idea to be sure someone else knows your location.
Boundaries: Respecting narrator rights and boundaries means understanding that your interviewee may choose to withhold information, may change his or her mind about the interview or even allowing dissemination after they have agreed to do so. You will need to be prepared to honor any requests your narrator makes, including asking to remain anonymous. Remeber to honor these requests in the transcript and write-up of the interview as well.
Emotion: It is not unusual for you or the narrator to be emotionally moved by the interviewee's stories and memories. If appropriate, temporarily stop the recording and allow your interviewee to regain composure. Perhaps your narrator will want a change of subject. Check in with your narrator and ensure that he or she is comfortable continuing with the interview at that time. You may need to reschedule.
Dissemination and Access: Because one of the primary objectives of oral history is making the information available to the public, you will want discuss this aspect of the project with your interviewee beforehand, and again during the interview. The narrator retains all rights to their interviews until and unless they transfer those rights. You may wish to offer your narrator an opportunity to discuss your transcript and/or project draft and they may wish to receive a copy of your final project.
Thank your interviewee. You should spend time at the end of the interview to decompress a bit with your narrator and thank them for the opportunity to share their story. Additionally, it is a good idea to send a Thank You card to your narrator, so make sure you have a mailing address.
If you recorded the interview, the level of detail required in your transcription will depend upon your goals and purposes for your oral history project. For example, you will need to decide which disfluencies (any breaks or irregularities such as "uhm," "hmmm..." and so forth) to include in your transcription.
The transcription process takes a lot of time, particularly if you have never done transcription before. There is no hard and fast rule, but by some estimates, one hour of audio or video can take 4-9 hours to transcribe, depending on the subject, number of speakers, and audio quality.
There are a number of free transcription resources available.
Some researchers have been able to work with voice to text translators, but their abilities are limited. You will still need to edit for disfluencies and transcription errors.