How to Create an Oral History of Your Own

Oral history is the systematic collection of living people’s testimony about their own experiences.  Historians have finally recognized that the everyday memories of everyday people, not just the rich and famous, have historical importance. If we do not collect and preserve those memories, those stories, then one day they will disappear forever.

Your stories and the stories of the people around you are unique, valuable treasures for your family and your community. You and your family members can preserve unwritten family history using oral history techniques. Likewise you and your community can discover and preserve unwritten history large and small. Oral history is so flexible that people of all ages can adapt the techniques of asking and listening to create and learn about history and historical narratives.

Sequence for Oral History Research

    1. Plan the project.  Consider why the history is important and make sure the end product serves that goal.

    2. Conduct background research

    3. Decide how you will record the interview: tape recorder, video camera, etc.

    4. Conduct the interview(s)

    5. Organize and present results.

    6. Store materials is a safe manner.

How do I ask the questions?

    1. In general, have a list of topics in mind, not specific questions, word-for-word, and not a specific sequence. You may, however, want to have a start-up list of questions to get your interviewee and yourself comfortable before you change to your topic list.

    2. Ask easy questions first, such as brief biographical queries. Ask very personal or emotionally demanding questions after a rapport has developed. End as you began, not with bombshells, but gently with lighter questions.

    3. Allow silence to work for you. Wait.

    4. Be a good listener, using body language such as looking at the interviewee, nodding, and smiling to encourage and give the message, "I am interested."

    5. Ask for specific examples if the interviewee makes a general statement and you need to know more. Or you might say, "I don't understand. Could you explain that in more detail?"

    6. Ask for definitions and explanations of words that the interviewee uses and that have critical meaning for the interview.

    7. Unless you want one-word answers, phrase your questions so that they can't be answered with a simple "yes" or "no."

    8. Be flexible. Watch for and pick up on promising topics introduced by the interviewee, even if the topics are not on your interview guide sheet..
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UH Professor Dr. Joseph Pratt convenes a workshop with interviewers and presents helpful tips and methods for conducting successful oral history interviews.