Oral History

History 300, Pennock, Wi/03


What is oral history?


Advantages & Disadvantages of oral history


“Interviewers have to consider how creditable their interviewees are as witnesses.  Were they in a position to experience events firsthand or are they simply passing along secondhand information?  What biases may have shaped their original perceptions?  Have interviewees forgotten much of their past because it was no longer important to them or because the events were so routine that they were simply not memorable?  How differently do interviewees feel now about the events they are recalling?  What subsequent incidents may have caused them to rethink and reinterpret their past?  How closely does their testimony agree with other documentary evidence from the period, and how do they explain the discrepancies?  None of these considerations would disqualify an interviewee from giving testimony, but answering these questions as completely as possible helps the interviewer and future researcher to assess the value of the information”  (Ritchie, 14).


Factors that influence the interview

Discussion of memory 


How to interpret inaccuracies?


The narrator’s perspective


The interviewer’s [your] role


Purpose of interview


Circumstances of the interview



 “What is needed then is an understanding of oral history not so much as an exercise in fact finding but as an interpretive event, as the narrator compresses years of living into a few hours of talk, selecting, consciously and unconsciously, what to say and how to say it” (Shopes).

“My own formulaic way of making sense of an interview is to ask: who is talking to whom about what, for what purpose, and under what circumstance” (Shopes).

Suggestions for Conducting an Interview


“To oversimplify, I think there are three stages to a good interview: careful preparation, including doing background research on the topic/s at hand and developing an outline, or game plan, for an interview; skillful questioning, which is a combination of learned techniques, communication skills, creative intuition, and practice; and careful follow-up, that is, making something of the interview – making sense of it, making it useful to others, whether by transcribing it to enhance accessibility, archiving it, or presenting it in some public way” (Shopes).


Release form







Qualities of a good interviewer



Constructing questions




Conducting the interview

Gather biographical information


General to specific questioning



Dealing with disagreements or inaccuracies



Importance of silence


Concluding the interview



Transcribing  [check out http://holocaust.umd.umich.edu/ for examples]


You will turn in:

1)      a tape

2)      a transcript of the tape.  The transcript title page should include: interviewee’s name, interviewers’ name, date of interview, location of interview (specific). You should also start by stating biographical information about the interviewee if it was not covered in the interview itself.

3)      a short essay (250-400 words) analyzing/interpreting the interview.


I will listen to the entire interview and look at the transcript. 

The oral history project is worth 15%, or 15 points, of your course grade.

I will grade the project based on two criteria:

1) how well you conducted the interview (not how “good” the interviewee was) (10 points)

2) your analysis of the interview in the short essay (5 points)





Agenda for Student Committees


I.                    What will the topic of the class’s oral history project be?


II.                 Who will be interviewed?  


III.               Devise a few sample questions.











Donald A. Ritchie. Doing Oral History. New York: Twayne, 1995.


Linda Shopes, “Making Sense of Oral History.” <http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral>