The Marist College Herritage Project: A Practical Guide to Doing Oral History.

Table of Contents

  1. Oral History Guidelines
  2. General Questions
  3. General Interview Questions for Faculty/Employees
  4. General Interview Questions for Current/ Former Marist Brothers
  5. General Interview Questions for Alumni
  6. Basic Instructions to the Marantz Professional Portable PC Card Recorder (Model PMD690)
  7. Checklist of Materials Needed to Conduct an Interview
  8. Ethical and Legal Considerations
  9. Donor Release Form(PDF/HTML)
  10. Interview Agreement(PDF/HTML)
  11. Interviewee Life History Form(PDF/HTML)
  12. Proper Word Form(PDF/HTML)
  13. Transcribers’ Guidelines
  14. List of Potential Interview Subjects
  15. Selected Marist College History Bibliography
  16. Selected Oral History Bibliography
  17. Selected Oral History Projects


What is Oral History?

Oral history is a method of collecting information about the past via interviewing and recording the responses of those who have direct knowledge of unique historical developments and experiences. Interview subjects could have acquired such “special” knowledge regarding particular past events either from observing and/or participating in such occurrences. Overall, the aim of oral history is to gather data not available in written records concerning various incidents, individuals, choices, and procedures. Oral history may even divulge how one’s personal ideals and conduct molded the past, and how the past may shape current values and behavior.

Top Ten List for Interviewers
  1. Ask one question at a time
  2. State your questions as directly as possible
  3. Ask open-ended questions – questions that begin with “why, how, where, what kind of,” etc. Avoid “yes or no” questions.
  4. Start with non-conversational questions. One good place to begin is with the interviewee’s childhood memories
  5. Don’t let periods of silence fluster you.
  6. Avoid interrupting the interviewee.
  7. If the interviewee strays away from the topic in which you are interested, don’t panic. Sometimes the best parts of the interview come about this way. If you feel the digression has gone too far afield, gently steer the interviewee back to the topic with your next question.
  8. Be respectful of the interviewee. Use body language to show you are interested in what he or she has to say. Remember, the interviewee is giving you the gift of his or her memories and experiences.
  9. After the interview, thank the interviewee for sharing his or her experiences. Also send a written thank-you note.
  10. 10. Don’t use the interview to show off your knowledge, charm, or other attributes. Remember, “good interviewers never shine – only their interviews do.”
Before the Interview

Select an interview subject, and establish contact with the interviewee in order to set up the appointment for the interview. Be sure to make a clear presentation of the interview’s purpose and nature. In addition, give the prospective interviewee your email address and phone number, so the former may contact you if he/she has any concerns or questions. It is important to encourage the interviewee to ask questions, so that he/she is comfortable when entering the actual interview; the individual will tend to give responses that are more detailed if he/she feels relaxed.

When selecting a venue in which to conduct the interview, make sure it is a quiet location, where there won’t be any interruptions. The interview session is usually enhanced if the interview takes place in a site that is familiar to the interviewee. Conduct preliminary research so that you are familiar with the topics you will be covering during the interview. Moreover, in order to come up with questions that will direct the interviewee to give you responses relevant to the subject you are interested in learning about, it is necessary to have at least some basic knowledge about such topics; more specific information will be derived during the actual interview.

Once you have decided on the focus of your interview (the subjects you desire to cover during the interview), you may begin to draft the questions that you will ask the interviewee; questions that are more specific should fall under each broad topic you wish to discuss. For example, if you wish to ask the interviewee about his/her childhood, you may desire to ask him/her more specific questions such as:

  • When and where were you born?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • What school(s) did you attend?
  • What were your parents’ names and occupations?
  • Do you have any siblings? If so, please state their names and the type of relationship you had or have with them.

Having an outline will give you confidence during the interview and will keep the interview moving in the direction you want to go. Furthermore, place the simplest questions, such as biographical information, at the beginning and the more complex or sensitive questions at the end. Moreover, be sure to ask open-ended questions rather than ones that may be answered by “yes” or “no,” and do not pose leading questions. For instance, the question, “Don’t you feel your siblings were mean to you,” is a leading question. Instead, one may reword this question and ask, “How did your siblings treat you?” Additionally, ask simply structured or single-stranded questions. This is because compound questions are harder to answer. If you desire to inquire about more than one point on a given subject, compose follow-up questions.

About a week or so before the interview is scheduled to take place, you should give the interviewee a copy of the question outline, so he/she is aware of and may prepare to respond to what you desire to ask during the interview. In addition, encourage the interviewee to offer any feedback regarding the questions you desire to ask. This is important because he/she may not want to answer certain questions and/or may be able to suggest additional questions for you to pose.

Be conscious of your appearance before you go to the interview. The attire you wear may tell the interviewee something about how you view him/her and even the interview itself. For instance, to some interviewees casual attire may suggest an informal atmosphere. Yet, other interviewees may view casual clothing as a lack of respect. Therefore, attempt to correspond your appearance to what will best relax the interviewee during the interview process.

Lastly, confirm the time, date, and place where the interview will take place with the interviewee. If you must reschedule the appointment, be sure to contact the interviewee and make him/her aware of the necessary cancellation.

The Interview Session

Allow a maximum of two hours for the interview session, for the interviewee may tire if it any longer, thereby decreasing the quality of his/her responses. If you do not finish the interview in one session, make another appointment with the interviewee to conduct another one.

Remember to take along extra paper, writing devices (i.e. pens), batteries, an extension cord, the question outline, and necessary research materials. Use an adaptor in preference to batteries. In addition, use an external microphone that is both stereo and multidirectional in preference to the recorder’s built-in microphone.

Before you leave for and even after you arrive at the interview be sure to check that your equipment is functioning. Make one or two test recordings and play them back in order to ensure that the actual interview will be able to be recorded. When you arrive and are setting up the recording equipment, chat informally to establish a rapport with the interviewee, but move as quickly as possible to the actual interview without beginning abruptly. Breaking the ice is an essential phase of an interview.

During an interview, a point that hasn’t occurred to you in composing your question outline may fly by in the midst of an interviewee’s answer. Therefore, keep a pen and pad nearby, so that you may write down any additional questions you desire to ask later in the interview. Also, taking notes during the interview may be especially helpful to the spelling of unusual names.

Additional Techniques

Have a one-on-one interview, so that the interviewee’s attention will focus on you, and yours on him/her. Place the recorder on a solid surface between you and the interviewee. If you are using a lapel microphone, be sure to remind the interviewee to attach the microphone to his/her shirt, and to refrain from blocking his/her mouth with his/her hands. At the beginning of the recording identify the place, time, date, and the interviewee(s) and the interviewer.

Begin the session with easy and enjoyable types of questions and let the interviewee expand on them. For example, you may want to start by asking some basic biographical questions to help put the subject of the interview into context. This will establish a pattern of in-depth response and recollections. Moreover, the interviewee will overcome the natural, initial anxiety after speaking at length about something he/she knows well. Take your time and never express impatience towards the interviewee.

When the recorder is running, focus your attention on the interviewee and give the machine the least amount of consideration in order to keep it recording smoothly. This will help the interviewee focus on the interview rather than the machine. Note: Try not to turn off the machine during an interview unless the interviewee requests you do to so, or is he/she is called away.

Speak in a calm and clear manner, the tone you will set will typically be echoed by the interviewee. After you ask a question, stop and wait for the answer. When the answer does come, never interrupt or talk over an interviewee. Cutting off the interviewee gives him/her the feeling that what they are saying is not important to you or that you may be hurrying through the interview.

Ask what is entitled “naive” questions. They convey to the interviewee a type of implication that you are ignorant, but not unintelligent, and want to know details. Keep in mind that people love to convey information about themselves and what they know; a comfortable, relaxed environment can help them recapture their own memories. Therefore, this may increase the quality of your interview. If you intend to ask about various mistakes and/or failures in a person’s life or career, raise his/her successes first.

Keep alert for cues from the interviewee that he/she will expand on a certain topic that you brought up. Similarly, be aware for hints that the interviewee is not comfortable with answering certain questions, and/or is experiencing fatigue. Such emotions are mostly conveyed via body language. If the interviewee is not comfortable with answering a question, do not press them to answer it. Additionally, if the subject is tiring, stop the recording, and ask him/her if he/she would mind continuing the interview at a later date. Otherwise, the quality of the interview may be compromised.

After the Interview
  • Unless the interviewee is running short on time, do not leave immediately after the interview is over. Once the recorder is turned off, thank the interviewee for his/her time and discuss the interview process that just occurred.
  • Be sure to let the interviewee know how the recording will be used.
  • Label the tape or disc the recording is on. Additionally, labeling what topics are discussed during the interview on the tape or disc may help future researchers.
  • If you can, make a copy of the interview for the interviewee.
  • Send a thank you card or letter to the interviewee.
  • Have the interviewee sign a release form (this is discussed later in this packet).
  • Take a picture of the interviewee to include with the interview.
  • Be sure to download the interview and burn it onto a blank CD. Note: Save copies of the interview in different formats, so that you do not lose what data you gained from the interviewee if a CD is lost or damaged. Also, don’t forget to download the pictures you have taken on the digital camera, and maintain copies of the photograph(s) for future purposes.

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last updated on July 14, 2004