Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

How to conduct an oral history interview

Ten Top Tips for Interviewing Relatives

[This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past Scotland 2008]

Chatting to as many relatives as possible – and as many times as possible - when you are doing family history research really can pay off. Remember that in an oral interview, only 10% of the talking time should be taken up by you, the interviewer; the other 90% should be time for the interviewee to talk.

At ease. Make sure your interviewee is as relaxed as possible and use prompts to jog his or her memory.

There is always the chance that an odd detail will emerge from an oral interview that could lead you into new realms of investigation in the archives, or by way of censuses and certificates. But remember also, that family history is not simply about coming up with a list of dates and facts to add to your family tree diagram. It is also about getting a feel for the way in which your family lived in the past, and finding out about the kind of people they were. Once you know your characters, their setting, their education and places of work you will more easily be able to understand why they made the life decisions they did.

To put your interviewee at ease and to maximise the likelihood of new information emerging, try the ten strategies below:

1. Prepare your questions in advance. Don’t read a list of questions from a card or paper as this can be offputting to the interviewee, but do have some idea of what you want to find out.
      2. Use prompts – items that you can hold and examine such as commemorative tankards and photographs can provide great talking points.

    1. Always ask single questions. Don’t confuse the interviewee by asking two questions at once.

    1. Don’t ask leading questions (i..e. questions that make assumptions). Don’t say ‘He must have felt terribly poor growing up in such a small house,’ Say ‘How do you think he felt growing up in that house?’

    1. Ask open rather than closed questions. A closed question might be ‘Was Uncle Charlie happy about the birth of so many children?’ This might elicit a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ type answer. Ask instead, ‘How do you think Uncle Charlie felt about the birth of so many children?’ Such open questions allow people to talk freely and this is when unexpected information may slip out. Also, put the questions in different ways on different occasions. For example, to ascertain when certain events happened, rather than asking for specific information with a question such as ‘Which year was that?’ ask for the same information in a roundabout way with a question such as ‘Was Aunty Grace born at that time?’

    1. But don’t make your questions too open. Asking an interviewee what they remember about work in a particular factory or shipyard, for example, might throw them into a panic. Ask instead what they remember about their first day in the job, or how they spent their first pay packet.

    1. Look out for the silences. There may be significant reasons why your interviewees don’t mention particular relatives or particular times. Illegitimacy, divorce and periods in prison are just some of the secrets that members of the older generation may be unwilling to discuss. Be sensitive to these awkward moments and make a mental note to check up on them later.

    1. Make sure you double check when accounts given by relations seem to be contradicting each other. Incorrect memories can be as interesting as correct ones. There may be a significant reason for them.

    1. Always ask – on the off chance – whether there is anything in print (or written down) about the story you are discussing. Relatives often have newspaper clippings, diaries, old school magazines, autograph books (and many other items that they assume will not be of any interest to anyone) tucked away. You can nearly always learn something from these.

    Is it in writing? This diary that my father kept as a boy during the Second World War substantiates his oral account of the same period.
    10. Think about how you will record the answers to your questions. You could get the interviewee to write their own responses, or tape what they are saying. The best way is probably to jot down rough notes as they are talking and write these up as soon as possible after the interview.

    Keywords: family history, European ancestors, oral history, interviews, England