Some Tips of the Trade

A few guidelines make oral history easy.


Video captures the emotion.

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Technology has made recording oral histories cheaper and the results more engaging. Here is some advice for getting started.

Preparation. Senate oral historian Donald Ritchie spends several hours preparing for each hour of oral history he collects. He reads books, consults records, and conducts auxiliary interviews to prepare questions for his primary subjects. Preparation for an oral history with a family member is no less important. Head to your local library and dig up newspapers from pivotal dates in your subject's life (i.e., wedding, first day on the job, death of a parent). By reading not only the headlines but also the advertisements, sports scores, and entertainment pages, you might be able to take the subject back to the old days and prompt unusual responses.

Technology. Archivists argue over the best format and the medium with the most longevity. But the basic rule is to use the best technology available to you. First and foremost, choose between audio and video. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks. Audio is intimate and less obtrusive in the interview process, but the poignancy of a moving image is considerable. Most consumer camcorders will suffice for video, while a good tape recorder will be enough for an audio recording. Digital formats are also a good option; microphones for iPods, for example, cost less than $40.

Questions. The interviewer should ensure that all the bases are covered: dates and circumstances of birth, childhood, marriage (and divorce), professional life, and hobbies. Allow the subjects to tell their own stories, but guide their progress to address the most important parts. "Playing dumb is a good way to go—never assume that a question is too obvious," says Ritchie. Avoid yes-or-no questions at all costs. The purpose of oral histories isn't to ascertain a given set of facts but rather to take a collection of memories and feelings. Open-ended questions like "How did it make you feel to...?" work best.

Silence. Moments of silence, however brief, can sometimes feel much longer. The interviewer should avoid the urge to inject himself into the conversation. Repress the desire to move along to another line of questioning before your subject has finished his or her thoughts. "Stories are told in their own time; wait and hear them out," says David Isay, who runs StoryCorps.

Resources. There has been an explosion of resources for oral histories on the Web, including newsgroups and forums for genealogical research and technical support. And many university libraries and local historical societies have oral history projects.