How to Tape an Oral History
From your 20th Century History Guide
The experiences of others provide insight into our past. By interviewing these people we can record a personal view of history.
- Decide what topic you want to learn about - are you researching your family history or researching a historical event or person?
- Choose someone to interview. It is best to choose someone who personally knew the individual you are researching or who experienced the event first-hand.
- Ask the person if you can interview them. Make sure to tell them why you want to interview them (the subject matter of your research) and what you will be using this information for (ex. family history, homework assignment, article, book).
- Be specific and honest. You are asking this person to be very open and to share their knowledge; reciprocate this trust by being frank and honest. Answer their questions as specifically as possible before and during the interview.
- Be flexible. When arranging the date and time of the interview, work around the interviewee's schedule. Try not to make it in the late evening for both of you are likely to get tired.
- Minimize distractions. Try to choose a location where the phone won't constantly ring, children or pets won't disturb, and waitresses or food won't distract.
- Allow ample time for the interview. Interviews are very draining; thus it is recommended to try to limit the interview to one hour (try not to go over two). If you decide you need more time, schedule another interview.
- Be prepared. Make sure you have brought all of your materials to the interview and seem prepared. You may even need to practice. You being prepared will help make the interviewee feel more comfortable.
- Bring a tape recorder. It is worth the money to invest in a good tape recorder and tapes for an oral history. Plug it into an outlet; this prevents the possibility of your batteries dying out during the interview. Don't forget to bring an extension cord.
- Prepare questions in advance. Prepare to bring 15 to 20 open-ended questions that will spark discussion. Begin simple (ex. where born, early life) and later tackle more personal questions.
- Begin the tape with an introduction. Make sure to include the name of the interviewer, the name of the interviewee, the date, and the location. You can tape the introduction before you meet with the interviewee.
- Consider making an intermission. After half an hour, usually when you have to turn over the tape, consider taking a small respite. Stand up, stretch, maybe go to the bathroom or get a glass of water.
- Thank the interviewee. The interviewee just shared a part of their life with you; make sure that you properly thank the interviewee. A follow-up thank you note is often a good idea.
- Make copies. Before doing anything else, make copies of the tapes. This will help prevent heartache if your tape player 'eats' the tape or if you accidentally record over the interview.
- Transcribe the tapes. The tapes are only valuable if you know what's on them. You can make a directory of the tape (by subject and time elapsed) and/or transcribe (type out) all or parts of the interview.
- Transcribing is an immensely time consuming project. you might consider only transcribing specific sections of the interview so that you can maintain accuracy.
More How To's from your Guide to 20th Century History