Recording oral history is a rich and rewarding experience, but there are many things to be borne in mind. Interviewing is a skill that has to be learnt. Choosing recording media is as much about its ability to last as about finding the best quality. When asking people to talk about their lives in their own words, there are copyright and data protection issues to think about.
But don’t worry. The Oral History Society has distilled years of experience into these advice pages, to answer your questions and start you on your way.
What is oral history?
History is all around us, in our own families and communities, in the living memories and the experiences of older people. We have only to ask them and they can tell us enough stories to fill a library of books. This kind of history – that we all gather as we go through life – is called ORAL HISTORY
Everyone has a story to tell about their life which is unique to them. Some people have been involved in momentous historical events like the Second World War, but many others haven’t. Regardless of age or importance we all have interesting experiences to share.
Most importantly, historical documents and books can’t tell us everything about our past. Often they concentrate on famous people and big events, and tend to miss out ordinary people talking about everyday events.
They also neglect people on the margins of society – ethnic communities, disabled and unemployed people for example – whose voices have been hidden from history. Oral history fills in the gaps and gives us history which includes everyone. Unfortunately, because memories die when people do, if we don’t record peoples’ life histories they are lost forever.
What can people remember?
Everyone forgets things as time goes by and we all remember things in different ways. Some people’s memories are better than others and for reasons we don’t really understand, many people actually remember their early years more as they get older. This is helpful when we want to record peoples’ memories.
All memories are a mixture of facts and opinions, and both are important. The way in which people make sense of their lives is valuable historical evidence in itself. Few of us are good at remembering dates, and we tend to telescope two similar events into a single memory. So when we interview people it is important to get them to tell us about direct personal experiences – eye-witness testimony – rather than things that might have been heard second hand.
We are more likely to remember
- an exceptional or unique event, rather than one which is blurred by repetition
- one which produced strong emotions – shock, surprise, fear, pleasure – at the time, rather than little or no reaction
- if we have ‘consolidated’ a memory, where thinking and talking about an experience helps strong encoding
- if the subsequent course of things makes the event appear to be instrumental, or perceived as a turning point
- how we felt rather than precise details of dates
- if we have a key reference point from which to work other things out, e.g. your date of birth will enable you to work out the year of your 21st birthday
Where do I start?
If you haven’t done any oral history interviewing before, think first about a focus or theme for your project. This could be your own family or street or block of flats, or it could be where you work, or your school.
You might want to pick a topic to ask people about, for example memories of childhood, leisure, politics, religion or women’s experience in wartime or memories of coming to Britain as a migrant.
Whether you decide to work alone or as part of a group, having a theme will help you to decide who to interview.
How to find someone to interview
- Ask friends, relatives, neighbours, work colleagues
- Use FaceBook or Twitter or other social media
- Contact local history groups, Women’s Institutes, Rotary Clubs, trade unions, schools, professional or voluntary organisations
- Visit older people’s centres and clubs
- Ask your local newspaper or radio station to run an appeal
- Put a notice up in your local library or museum
Have an interview plan
Before interviewing someone it’s useful to have done some background research. Have a look at any books, maps or old newspapers that might be relevant in your local library or record office or on the web. Brainstorm a list of questions but be careful that this does not make you too rigid in your questioning approach. Use it as a memory jogger.
Some of the best things you find out will be unexpected, and once you get started you are likely to be told some things you had not previously thought about. So it is essential to give the person you are recording plenty of time to tell you what they think matters. But you should not let the interview drift: it is your job to guide it.
For this you need an overall plan. Group the topics you want to cover in a logical way. Often a chronological structure is best.
What will you ask about?
There are some points to cover in every interview: date and place of birth, what their parents’ and their own main jobs were.
Whatever the topic, it usually helps to get the interviewee talking if you begin with their earlier life: family background, grandparents, parents and brothers and sisters (including topics such as discipline), then onto childhood home (housework, chores, mealtimes), leisure (street games, gangs, sport, clubs, books, weekends, holidays, festivals), politics and religion, schooling (key teachers, friends, favourite subjects), early relationships, working life (first job, a typical working day, promotion, pranks and initiation, trade unions and professional organisations), and finally later family life (marriage, divorce, children, homes, money, neighbours, social life, hopes).
Most people find it easier to remember their life in chronological order, and it can sometimes take you two or three sessions to record a full life story.
Think about how you ask questions
The simplest questions are sometimes the best
Use plain words and avoid suggesting the answers. Rather than,
“I suppose you must have had a poor and unhappy childhood?”,
ask “Can you describe your childhood?”
You will need some questions that encourage precise answers:
“Where did you move to next?”
But you also need others which are open, inviting descriptions, comments, opinions:
“How did you feel about that?”
“What sort of person was she?”
“Can you describe the house you lived in?”
“Why did you decide to change jobs?”
The best interviews flow naturally and are not rehearsed. Don’t over-prepare. Don’t use a script.
Tape recorded life stories should be lively, spontaneous and vivid.
Allow people to be themselves.