5 Oral History Basics

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium

1. Schedule your chat.
Get advance permission to interview—and to record it. “Give them an idea ahead of time what you’re going to be asking about,” offers Delta Stacey, a consultant at the Family History Library and veteran family history interviewer. “That way, when you ask, they’ve got those details in their minds.”

2. Record it.
Take notes, use a video or tape recorder, or a combination of these. But be sensitive. “I had someone who was uncomfortable talking face to face, so we did all of our interviews over the telephone,” says Stacey. “That way, she didn’t have to look at me.”

3. Ask open-ended questions.
“You never ask a question that can be answered with a yes or no,” advises Nancy Gould, a counselor and family historian who specializes in personal history interviews. Instead say, “Tell me about…”

4. Set a time limit.
People wear out. Many interviewers find that an hour to 90 minutes per session is about right. After that, Stacey finds, “people get rambly even if you have good questions.”

5. Know when to stop (even before the time limit).
“It’s the nonverbal cues,” says Gould. “When the person starts looking at the clock, losing eye contact completely, or gazing off in another direction,” it’s time to close the conversation.