Oral History
Conducting an oral history interview with some one who lived in the 1940's is an excellent way to understand what life was like at that time. The collection of oral histories brings the past to life by creating a picture of the past through a person's own words of their lived experiences.

An oral history is the collection of historical information based on an individual's spoken thoughts and recollections of their personal experience. Although modern oral histories are associated with audio or video recording, all cultures have a tradition of story telling that enables the collective memories of events to be passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Often conducted as an interview where questions are used to scaffold the direction of the speaker's presentation, an oral history may also be a presentation on a given topic whereby the speaker chooses the thoughts, recollections, feelings and emotions that they wish to share.


How to conduct an oral history

1. Know the purpose
  • brainstorm prior knowledge to identify the topic
  • determine whether interested in a person’s life, a place, an object, an event or a more general topic
  • find out as much as possible about the topic
2. Identify sources of information
  • identify an appropriate interviewee
  • contact the interviewee to explain the purpose of the interview and the type of information you are seeking
  • if they are agreeable, organise an appropriate date, time and place for the interview
  • ensure sufficient time before the interview to enable the interviewee to think about the topic and to locate any items they may wish to bring to the interview
3. Agreement to use collected information and to record the interview
  • if you intend to record the interview for further use, you should explain your intentions to the interviewee when you are organising the interview and seek their permission to do so. Recording enables attention to be focused on the interviewee, what is being said and how it is said during the interview.
  • make your purpose very clear to the interviewee so that they know how the collected information will be used.
  • confirm your agreement in a written copyright release form similar to the following:

I, …. (Interviewee’s name) …. Give my permission to …. (name of interviewer or project) …… to record this interview via audio/video recording and to use it, or part of it, for ………… (insert purpose) ……….. and for copies to be lodged in …. (name of library or archive) …… for use by other bona fide researchers.

Signed: ……………………………………….. (Interviewee)

Date: ………………………..

Interviewer: ……………………………..

4. Preparing for the interview
  • research background information about the interviewee
  • prepare questions to guide your interview: orientation questions that identify the interviewee and obtain an overview of their personal history in relation to the topic being discussed
  • prepare topic questions avoiding closed questions that can result in “yes” or “no” answers
  • practise questioning techniques including probing questions (Why? What? How? When? What did you feel? What did you think about …..?) to elicit additional information
  • select, test and practise using equipment
5. Conducting the interview
  • organise room and equipment
  • don’t talk too much – the important person is the interviewee and their information
  • be sensitive and responsive to the interviewee
  • at the conclusion, ask if there is anything else the interviewee wanted to discuss – organise another time if necessary and also ask if there is anyone else who might be an appropriate interviewee
  • thank the interviewee for their time and contribution to your research
6. Following the interview
  • debrief on the presentation
  • label the recording with identifying information and determine how it is to be used – transcribed or notes taken whilst listening
  • determine how the information is to be used ensuring that this is in accordance with the agreement made with the intervieweewrite a thank you letter to express your appreciation of the interviewee’s time and support of your project. If possible, provide them with a copy of the recording or a transcript of the interview for any further comments and invite them to any presentation planned in response to the interview