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Tips for Interviewers

Oral history is… “a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.” —Oral History Association

Terms: Narrator - the person being interviewed during an oral history recording; Interviewer - the person conducting the interview.

Remember to have both narrator and interviewer sign an Oral History Release Agreement.

  1. Choose recording equipment you are comfortable with and practice using your equipment before the interview. Set up in a quiet location.
  2. Begin by identifying yourself, the narrator, the date, and location. Also identify the topic, and any special relationship you have with the narrator.
  3. Ask the narrator one question at a time. State your questions as directly as possible, and use open-ended questions (“why, how, what, where,” etc.):
    1. What do you remember about…?
    2. Describe the place that…
    3. Explain how you…
    4. Tell me about…
  4. Be sure to ask follow-up questions to get as much specific information as possible, such as:
    1. What did you mean by…?
    2. Why did that happen?
    3. How did that affect you?
    4. What happened next?
  5. Remember that questions are meant simply to help focus and guide the interview. Be prepared to jump around in chronology and follow up on ideas that need to be explored more fully.
  6. Try not to interrupt the narrator, and understand that periods of silence are useful for reflection and recollection.
  7. Be alert to what your narrator wants to talk about and don’t panic if the narrator strays away from your list of questions–sometimes the best parts of the interview come about this way.
  8. Listen carefully to what your narrator is saying and use body language to show you are interested in what s/he has to say.

Interview tips adapted from the Southern Oral History Program’s Practical Guide to Oral History and the Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide.