Feature Archive: Everything you wanted to know about oral history…but were afraid to ask

by Mason Norton (Edge Hill University)

Oral history is a field that can be quite daunting, partly because of its simplicity. How do I find interviewees? How do I record the interviews? Is my French going to be good enough? Will my questions sound silly? Will the findings be any good? If you are a postgraduate thinking all of these things, then do not worry. Even experienced researchers think these things from time to time!

1) Why should I do oral history?

Archival research is fascinating, but it is really only the tip of the iceberg. In the UK for example, the National Archives at Kew keep just a tiny percentage of the material that they receive. What oral history allows for is another perspective, from someone whose story would likely not be told in a normal written archive. This also gives you the chance to interact directly with the sources. From here, you can begin to really make an impact as a researcher.

2) How do I find people to interview?

This is the hardest question to answer, and the most time-consuming. Basically, there are three things that you have got to do beforehand to maximise your oral history research – homework, homework, homework. How you find your interviewees depends and varies according to your subject and field. If your topic is the Second World War, you won’t find too many witnesses left – but the local archives départementales or even private archives may have a series of recordings which you can listen to.

However, if you’re researching something more recent, such as the student protests of 1986, or the anti-Le Pen demonstrations of 2002, then a good place to start is by contacting, or trying to contact, those who took part in the protests. If you can get in touch with one or two witnesses, then you shouldn’t be afraid to ask them if they know anyone else from that time who may want to speak to you. From there, word of mouth can take over, and sometimes be extremely effective.

3) How do I record the interview?

Not everyone chooses to record the interviews, but the vast majority of historians at least try to, and it’s strongly recommended. In the old days, it was tape, but now, there are digital devices available. If you happen to have a Hudl, or an Android Tablet, they too will have sound and image recording apps, and these facilities exist too on some mobile phones, although the quality with mobiles can be unsatisfactory. The best thing is to try out the equipment that you’ve got before you go – if it’s not up to the mark, then it’s time to start shopping around.

4) What questions should I ask?

Each interviewer has their own style. Some prefer pre-prepared questions and questionnaires. Personally, I prefer to open the interview with a question asking what is their most prominent memory of the period that I’m looking at. Then I go back to their birth and their family background, and then their childhood memories, and work gradually back to the period of interest, exploring the areas that interest you, and beyond.

It’s best, I feel, to let the interview take its own course. This is known as ‘semi-structured interviewing’. You have to be on your toes to know how to guide the interview once you decide to go “freestyle” – but personally, I find that’s one of the joys of doing oral history. The barriers and limitations come down. I would say that it’s a good idea to stick to the structure when you’re starting out, and then become bolder and more flexible once you’ve got a few under your belt. Remember, a good interviewer asks not just the right questions, but listens attentively to the answers too.

5) Where should I interview them?

Unless there is absolutely no choice, do it face-to-face. Interview them somewhere where your subject is going to be comfortable, at a time of day where they are going to be comfortable – mornings are sometimes best. It’s also a good idea, particularly if you are a non-native speaker, to have a third person present – if the subject doesn’t understand your question because of your pronunciation, or is a bit deaf, then the third party can help.

6) What is the end result like?

It can be useless, but it can also be extremely informative. The basic principle of keeping an open mind and not pre-supposing anything is a must – I was told at MA level that with oral history ‘the most important thing to do is to suck it and see’. Once the interview has finished, then you can determine as to how to use it – but the best thing is to wait until after your trip has finished, you’ve got a few interviews together, and then work out a pattern for your dissertation/thesis, and structure your research accordingly.


So – what are you waiting for?


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