Oral History Interview Technique

How do I conduct interviews?

Oral history involves is a particular kind of interviewing, one that is different from the kinds of interviews conducted by journalists, sociologists, and others.

For me the heart of the practice can be found in the phrase “shared authority.” Oral historians strive to conduct an interview that is a reflection of both the memories of the interviewee and the contribution of the trained and prepared interviewer.

As an interviewer, I need to come to the interview setting as ready as I possibly can be. Preparation takes place in several ways. First and most obviously, my recorder, microphone and sometimes my camera have to be good-to-go. Also, I try to learn as much as I can about the person before the interview begins. I bring a standard list of questions with me, as well as a note pad and pen, and extra batteries, too, just in case.

My first task as an interviewer is to establish expectations. I have interviewees review the informed consent and deed of gift processes with me, and ask any questions that might arise. I seek to eliminate misunderstandings about my use of the material before we begin. Once the informed consent is signed, we start.

Most often I ask the interviewee to tell me about his or her family history as a prelude to discussing military service. This way they can make clear for me how and why they came to join the military, and how they understand that transition from civilian to service-member.

Once the interview begins, I try to remain relatively quiet. My goal is not to interrupt someone’s train of thought.  In order to enforce this silence, I commonly sit on my hands as a means of reminding myself that the other person’s needs and thoughts are my primary concern. I strive to maintain eye contact, if I can, too. I wish to listen with as much intensity as possible.

Silence can be difficult to maintain. As sensitive people, we don’t like to be witness to another person’s pain, and very often oral history takes interviewees into dark places. A common response to expressions of sadness or discomfort is to interrupt the interviewee, or interject with our own thoughts and words, as a means of disrupting the emotions that arise. Certainly if emotions become overwhelming, I will stop recording in an effort to allow the interviewee to recover. But most often interviewees, and people in general, are able to govern their feelings effectively, recognizing when it is okay to continue speaking.  As a result, I try not to speak, even if difficult emotions arise. If I am sharing authority for the interview, then I must literally allow the interviewee to have the authority to continue – – or not – – should they wish to do so. Dealing with military veterans, tears are not uncommon.

I do ask questions. Even though I sit on my hands in an effort to remind myself of my objectives, if there is something unclear, or that I need to know, I will speak up. Most often this will concern chronology. People do not always maintain a chronological narrative when telling autobiographical stories. If there are topics that are referred to obliquely, or items that need to be followed up, I will write them down on my notepad, and ask them when an appropriate moment arises.

Students sometimes ask me what they should do if an interviewee seems to veer off topic. While of course oral history is not the same thing as therapy, in which any subject matter is appropriate, I tend to believe that as an interviewer I have plenty of time, and that my digital recording devices are adequate to any demand. For this reason, I like to let interviewees talk. Even if what they are saying might seem, at first, unrelated to the principal theme of my interests, very often people come back around to the subject that interests me, connecting what they are saying to the broader project at hand. Sometimes they see and understand connections that I don’t – – yet.  As a result, interviews can be quite long, though most often people become fatigued after an hour and a half or two hours of talking.

Sharing authority also means being honest. Sometimes interviewees have expressed to me opinions that I don’t agree with, or used terms that I find offensive. An obligation to remain honest, however, is not the same thing, in my mind, as a requirement to be confrontational. While I might reject opinions and the use of particular terminology, I do not necessarily or automatically speak up. If asked, I will be forthright about my views. But oral history does not demand that I quarrel with my interviewee, in my opinion. After all, I view my role in the interview as that of the student. I’m expected to be informed, attentive and honest, but the person I’m speaking with has knowledge that I would like to gain, an interpretation of the past I would like to understand. I too have something to bring to the conversation, very often derived from my preparation. But that does not mean we have to fight, if I don’t agree with my teacher.

For one example of the way I conduct oral history interviews, download and watch this recording of my interview with Peggy Cornett, done in 2005 for the Texas Tech University Vietnam Archive. I speak in the first minute, ask a question about chronology, and then don’t really respond until about minute 14. (When you get to the TTU page, search for  “Napoli.” You’ll find it.)  http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/events/2005-IaDrang/2005oh.php