Oral History

"Every time an old person dies, it is as if a library had burned down." according to oral history author Alex Haley.

If you observe the seven simple rules in this article, you can not only become an effective oral historian, but will gather valuable genealogical information in the process. You will preserve part of that “library” when the memories of the individual die with him or her.

Imagine someone who experienced everything from traveling by oxcart to flying in transoceanic jets. A person who lived through the stock market crash, the Great Depression, the Midwestern dust storms of the 30's, World War II, the Korean War, and all the wars since. Someone who watched McCarthy hearings on TV, experienced the resignation of Richard Nixon, grieved at the assassination of John F. Kennedy. They die, all those memories die with them.

Observe these seven simple steps and you can help preserve some of those living libraries in your own oral history project.


Step One Listen carefully

You listen carefully not only by hearing the words, but by catching the nuances of what is being said. Sometimes you may miss a word, especially when you are interviewing older people for oral history. The word may or may not be critical to the statement.

For example, suppose in writing your oral history article, the subject was telling of a time he and his friends were stranded on an island for two weeks. He says, “We were so hungry we could eat the sand which is there.” This is his joke for “sandwiches there.” If you take the statement as actual fact, you miss the point of his statement–merely a joke. Yes, they were hungry, but he can joke about it now.

If what he said was, “The only thing we could find to eat were turtle eggs. Have you ever eaten a turtle egg? I gag every time I see even a picture of a turtle now,” you take that report of eating turtle eggs as a true fact of the extent of their hunger. Even if he says this in a jocular vein, you know he was reporting a fact about hunger.

Listen not only for words, but the message being conveyed when you record oral history.


Step Two Take good notes . Review them for blank spots.

Sometimes the subject won’t mind if you use a tape recorder to record the session. This has two dangers.
      One , some people give permission, but freeze up when talking. Or they hold back telling everything.
      Two , the subject may insist on listening to the tape and hears things she or he does not want you to use.

Not only does this increase the time, but can compromise some of your best material.

The right to edit what you use should be something you assure the interviewee you will permit in any case. Seeing material in context and in written form most of the time is more acceptable than hearing the words and the inflections with which they were spoken.

In any case, even with a tape recorder, make written notes. These can report facial expressions, attitudes, and other cues to deeper meaning of the spoken word. In writing your oral history you might say, “Her voice was dispassionate as she told of the fire, but she sat there wringing her hands as tears flowed. They made tracks on her dusty face.” That is more descriptive and powerful than, “She said the fire was a powerful loss.”

Written notes also permit you to scan the material covered in the interview and check for missed points you didn’t notice as your subject was speaking. Always review your notes immediately. You may not get a chance for a second interview. If you like you can say something like, “That was a very moving story. Let me check for a moment and see if there was something I forgot to ask.” This keeps the interview open and helps the subject see you are not simply ignoring her or him.


Step Three Ease the interviewee into the session.

Obviously you’re not going to go pounding on the door of your subject and say, “I’m writing an oral history article and I’ve come to grill you on your Great Depression experiences.”

Even jokingly.

First, you set up the interview. You explain you’ve been told by some of the subject’s friends that she [or he] has told some interesting stories and you’d like the chance to drop by and listen some time. You set the date and time. You remind the person you’re coming over, either the day before or the morning of the appointment. And you show up on time, perhaps 5 or 10 minutes early, but never late.

Upon arrival, you set the person at ease. You let the individual ask questions about what this is all about, or the way their sciatic is acting up. Help the person feel at ease. If they don’t feel comfortable talking to you, you won’t get the information for your oral history you want.

You must treat the person with dignity and respect. This individual is unique, a living library. Appreciate this fact.

Even if you have biases [or ever have been told you have biases] about gender, cultural background, race, old age, politics, social position, language, life style, religion, or any other category into which you might fit the subject, set them aside for the interview.

Or don’t do it.

Remember, you’re not on a crusade. You’re not attempting to convert someone to your point of view. You’re not there to argue. You’re there for information that only this person possesses–their experience.

If you want that information, treat them with dignity.


Step Four Steer the conversation in the direction you want to go.

Your subject might want to talk about sciatica all day. You will need to steer your oral history conversation in your desired direction. You could say something like, “So your sciatica is really bad. Did you have it during the Great Depression, too?”

It’s not cool to say, “I came to talk to you about the Great Depression, not your Great Sciatica.”

Sympathy is fine, but remember you are there for oral history on the Great Depression. And maybe more. The memories of your subject may be critically fine about the period leading into the Great Depression. They may be equally acute about World War II and the nation’s emergence from the Great Depression.

Once again, gently steer the conversation to these other topics. “What happened to you when Roosevelt declared the bank holiday?” you might ask. The replies from this question can suggest other questions if the first question didn’t trigger a flood of oral history content.

Likewise, a question like, “Where were you on December 7, 1941 when the announcement was made about Pearl Harbor?” could open more doors to oral history content.

Remember, you may be seeking specific information for an oral history of The Great Depression, but any information you get can either enrich your document, or become the initial source base for another oral history on another topic.

Get all you can while the getting is good. And get blanket permission to use the material.


Step Five Ask for details.

The interviewer’s best question is, “And what happened next?”

When you’re trying to get information for your oral history. Your subject often will think everything has been told. The rest of the story is in the subject’s head. They might not realize you don’t know what they know.

Say you’re talking to a World War II veteran who hit the each on D-day. He says, “I hardly got off the boat when I stepped on a land mine. I lost my leg. That was the end of the war for me.”

That wasn’t the end of the story, let alone the war. You need to ask for details.

Interviewer “You stepped on a landmine. You lost your leg. How? Was it blown off?”

Subject “Yeah. A medic wrapped up the wound to stop me from bleeding to death. There was no one to help with a stretcher. I woke up as he was lifting me to his shoulder. ‘Hey, you’re leaving my rifle,’ I moaned. ‘F— your rifle,’ he told me. ‘I’ve got to get you evacuated to a hospital.’”

Interviewer “And so you were evacuated.”

Subject “He toted me back to the same boat I came on. Shells were dropping all around it as we headed back across the English Channel, but soon we were out of range. I passed out. When I woke up I was in the hospital.”

Quite a bit more than “I hardly got off the boat when I stepped on a land mine. I lost my leg. That was the end of the war for me.” You filled out information for your oral history by asking for details.




Step Six Keep the interview pleasant and offer to come back.

You hardly ever get all the content for your oral history from one visit.

The first rule is mentioned above–treat your subject with dignity. No matter how much they want to share their memories, if they feel discounted, they are not going to share those memories with whoever slighted them.

A little praise along the way helps. The operative word is little . Extravagant praise, even for extraordinary accomplishments easily becomes suspect. If the subject pulled a child from a burning building, it’s one thing to say, “That was a very brave act,”

It’s quite another to say, “How wonderful! That’s the bravest thing I’ve ever heard of. I feel very honored to be talking to the very person who performed what must be the bravest action of the year.” Some people with big egos might eat this up. But why take a chance? Most will say this is so much BS. And so it is.

Little comments like, “That must have taken courage,” “You are very wise to recognize that,” “Not many people would have made that choice.” not only provide the recognition folks appreciate, but often lead the individual to share additional memories.

If you’ve kept the visit positive and pleasant, it is much easier to arrange another visit. This should not seem preplanned. As you gather your materials and head for the door it is enough to say, “I’ve really enjoyed [appreciated, been enlightened, etc.] by my visit today. I’d like to drop by another time and hear some more.” If you say “talk some more” it sounds like you’re the center of focus. Always keep the subject as the central point of contact.

If the person responds agreeably, be ready to suggest a time you have free. “You know, I could drop by again on Tuesday morning, if you don’t mind. I have some time available then, and on Thursday right after dinner, about 1:30.”

When you don’t get a favorable response to your suggestion that you’d like to drop by again, or if the times you’ve suggested are not convenient, ask, “May I call you to see if you’re free some time?”

Be eager to hear more and you’ll probably get the invitation.

Step Seven Be patient. Be patient. Be patient.

Oral history is not necessarily obtained from the elderly, but most of the time it is. That means you need to realize the time frame of your subject is not likely to match your production schedule. Often they think more slowly, organize their thoughts more slowly, and respond more slowly than you would like.

But extracting oral history from the elderly is like ripening a tomato. You can’t rush it, but if you wait until the proper time the result is quite rewarding. And sometimes you might think a tomato could ripen in the time it takes your subject to respond! Just be patient.

Don’t make your patience an obvious virtue. If your subject feels like you are forcing yourself to be patient, it won’t be patience at all.

And don’t try to help your subject to remember by supplying words you think he or she is trying to think of, As often as not, this interrupts the thought process and really angers some people because they feel you are belittling their ability to remember. Which you are.

Better to keep the flow going by repeating the sense of what they are saying to show them you are really listening. Then, when they come to a barrier to their train of thought, give them time to put it together. After an appropriate wait, repeat again the last thought they expressed.

Sometimes you might say, “Let’s go on to .... and maybe the thought will come to you.” And frequently it does.

The major point is, keep your patience as you gather material for your oral history.


So follow these seven steps:

1. Listen carefully

2. Take good notes

3. Ease the interviewee into the session

4. Steer the conversation

5. Ask for details

6. Keep the interview pleasant; ask to come back

7. Be patient. Be patient Be patient.

A careful observation of the rules will practically guarantee your position as Oral Historian.



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