Oral History Interviewing Tips

Oral History Interviewing Tips

Nobody can tell your own story as well as you. Here's how to get started transforming your memories into memoirs.

• Make an appointment to conduct the interview. Though this sounds rather formal, it also makes the person you are interviewing feel special.

• Prepare for the interview by reading guides on conducting oral history interviews, which offer interviewing techniques and sample questions.

• Ask open-ended questions, not ones that will give you a “yes” or “no” response. For example, instead of asking, “You were born in Richmond, Virginia, right?” ask, “Where were you born?” Try to phrase questions with “why,” “how” and “what.”

• Make stories a priority over facts. Memories for facts fade more quickly; memories for stories and emotions are more lasting. Facts you can get anytime from genealogical records; stories are lost forever when the person dies.

• Get the person’s consent to tape the interview. Also get consent to use any of the material told to you. Do not assume consent because the person agreed to be interviewed and taped. The person may have second thoughts after telling you something or may prefer that certain topics not be printed and circulated.

• Keep the interview to no more than one to two hours at a time. Interviewing can be tiring for both you and your subject.

• Try to interview only one person at a time in a room with just the two of you. If other relatives are available, interview them separately. People tend to talk over one another, and you may have difficulty distinguishing voices on the tape.

• Always make a backup copy of interview tapes and store originals in a safe, dry place.

• Either transcribe the tape or make notes from it. Tapes themselves are difficult to work with when writing narrative; it’s better to have notes or a transcript.

• As a courtesy, provide the interviewee with a copy of the tape and your notes or transcript. Allow the person to make corrections or clarify points, and to point out any topics that should not be printed or circulated.

From the January 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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