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Oral history

Conducting the interview

Interview etiquette

Before you arrive

Ensure other members of your group know where you are and have your contact details so that they can contact you if necessary. Also make sure the interviewee has someone who knows who you are, why you are meeting them, and where and when you are conducting the interview. Keep an audit trail of correspondence between you and the interviewee. If you have not met the interviewee in person before, take some form of identification with you.

Recording location

The selected room should be quiet and not facing a busy road. Ensure all TVs, radios and mobile phones are switched off or on silent. Make sure that you are not likely to be disturbed by other occupants of the house, visitors or pets.

Your conduct

Remember, interviewees may be nervous or apprehensive about being interviewed by a stranger, even if it takes place within their own home. Being calm, patient, relaxed and polite will help put them at ease and is likely to result in a better interview.

Breaks

Before you start, agree to build a couple of breaks into the interview for rest and refreshment – talking for an extensive period of time will get tiring for the participant. You may also need to consider impromptu breaks if the interviewee becomes upset by some of the things they are talking about. For all breaks, press pause rather than stop on the recorder, to avoid finishing the recording and having to start a new one.

Recording agreement form

As well as going through the participation agreement before the interview, go through the recording agreement form thoroughly – download a sample recording agreement form. Make sure the interviewee knows their rights regarding the copyright of the recording, and again ensure they know how you are planning to store and use it. Ask them if they are happy with the wording of the form before they sign it.

After the interview

Thank the interviewee for their time and ask them how they found the interview – bringing up memories is sometimes traumatic for participants.

Ensure they have understood, agreed to and signed the participation agreement and the recording agreement and that they are still happy for the interview to be made public. Re-establish which sections, if any, they would prefer to be closed.

Before you leave, make sure they have your contact details and that you have agreed a date, time and location for any follow-up interviews.

It’s a good idea to send the interviewee a copy of the audio recording in their preferred format, so that they have a record of what they have said.

Interview content

There are some key points that you will need to cover in each interview. This will be useful for people who later catalogue and listen to the oral history recordings.

At the beginning of the recording, state:

  • Your (the interviewer’s) name
  • The interviewee’s name (the interviewee can state this)
  • The date, time and place that the interview is being recorded – do not be too specific if it is recorded in the interviewee’s home

The first points that need to be covered in the interview are:

  • Context – the reason why this person is being interviewed. For example, ‘we’re here today to talk about Mrs. Bridge’s experience of growing up in Market Langthwaite and her career as a teacher’. 
  • The interviewee’s date and place of birth – exact details are not needed, just the year and town or village name

Interview questions

It’s generally a good idea to not ‘over-plan’ your interview questions, as too much preparation and rehearsal can make the conversation stilted. Here are some tips for keeping interviews flowing:

  • Pick a maximum of four or five topics that you really want to know about, and let the interviewee know them in advance so they can prepare and collect their thoughts. The topics should be the key reasons why you want to interview a particular person. Examples could include:
    • Their working lives
    • Skills and experiences
    • How they came to live in a particular village or town
    • Their involvement with local political parties, charities, clubs or societies
  • Interviewees generally find it easier to remember the details of their life chronologically, so think about structuring the interview to take in their early family life first before moving on to education, career and relationships
  • Keep the questions open-ended – avoid those that could produce ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. For example, rather than saying ‘Was this your next job?’ say ‘Tell me about your next job.’ 
  • Avoid asking leading questions. Keep your questions as neutral as you can, this will ensure you get the story as the interviewee intends it to be told and avoid any preconceptions. For example, rather than saying: ‘Was that a difficult experience for you?’ try asking: ‘How did that experience make you feel?’
  • Try not to get too involved – let the interviewees speak for themselves so that their memories and personalities are the focus of the conversation. Any further questions should simply be prompts or follow ups, to find out more about interesting subjects. For example, ‘What did you think of that?’, ‘Why did you decide to move there?’, ‘When did that come to an end?’
  • Remember, the interviewee is the focus. Never correct the interviewee or disagree with them. Try not to interrupt – wait for a pause before you ask a question. Keep on topic as much as possible and avoid switching too quickly between subjects. 
  • You don’t necessarily have to cover every topic in one go – an interviewee may find an extensive interview tiring. If you feel you haven’t fully covered everything you wanted to, suggest scheduling a follow-up session.

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