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Oral History: Best Practices

Best Practices


Topics  Each new topic is best approached with a large questions.  "Tell me about . . ." or "Can you describe . . ." are good ways of stimulating the interviewee's memory and allowing him or her to tell e his or her own story.  The various topics of an interview can be viewed as an inverted pyramid: broad, general questions first, followed by questions asking for more detail.

Narratives What is of interest is the story of the interviewee's experience, not just facts or opinions of his and of others.

Length Once the interviewee begins talking, the general rule is to not interrupt. Wait until the interviewee completes a story or train of thought to ask a follow-up question or introduce a new topic. It may be necessary to set expectations at the beginning of each interview about the importance of sharing and outline and agreeing to cover all items within the time frame of the interview.

Follow up Much of the interviewer's role is to be alert to what the interviewee does not say and to help him or her expand the story so that it is more meaningful for others.

Questions should be concise and focused. Try to be as precise as possible, and ask only one question at a time.

  • Yes-or-no questions are useful when it's important to clarify a specific detail but should otherwise be avoided because they do not generate the rich, full answers that open-ended questions do. Similarly, leading questions -- those that begin "Don't you think that . . ." -- and either/or questions that allow for only a couple of options should be avoided.
  • It is best to save more personal and sensitive subjects for the middle of the interview when a more relaxed atmosphere has been established.
Tips for conducting good oral history interviews


Bean Active Listener Oral historians must be active listeners. You should be able to monitor the quality of what an interviewee is relating while also listening to clues or inferences that may reveal new areas or topics worth exploring.

Take Notes Taking notes will give you a chance to jot down new questions as they come to mind. It is also a good idea to write down names used during an interview so you can check for spelling accuracy with the interviewee after the interview.

Listen to Inaccuracies Simply state that other sources you have consulted have taken an opposite view and ask the interviewee to comment. Be careful not to directly challenge the knowledge or truthfulness of the interviewee.

Accept Silence Expect and accept a little silence. Never rush the interviewee into answering.  People often need time to put their thoughts in order. If you allow them a few more seconds, they will probably add more to their earlier statements.

End Strongly Before the interview concludes, ask the interviewee if there is anything else they would like to tell you that you did not ask about. After the interview, write a thank-you letter to the interviewee.

Chronological Organization


  • In general, a chronological organization is usually the best structure for an oral history interview.
  • Since memory does not follow a strict chronology, however, inevitably the interviewee will jump around in time. That jumping around is important and shows how the interviewee connects different areas of his or her experience, so it should not be entirely discouraged.
  • However, if the interviewee jumps around too much, the chronological thread of the interview will be lost.
  • In other instances, the interviewer may feel the interviewee is ranging too far afield and will want to gently bring him or her back to the time period under discussion and note that the digression may be of further interest later in the interview.