Oral History Project Tips

Submitted by Nicolaus Stengl

Preface: After reading about oral history and doing a few transcriptions I began making notes and tips on how to create a more successful interview. Some of the ideas below could be used in future projects that Centre College will/could do for the Digital Humanities Project and other classes. These tips are focused on an oral history project with war veterans because, according to the National WWII Museum, WWII veterans die at a rate of 429 a day. With that statistic, I believe that we need to collect as many oral interviews as we can from these veterans so we can preserve our college’s, state’s, nation’s, and world’s history.

Oral History Project Tips

Before you begin the interview you should have an understanding of and/or familiarization with the historical context of the period you are going to discuss (Vietnam Era for the Vietnam War, World War II, Korea, et cetera). This includes social conflicts and the war itself. If the interviewer has an understanding of the period and is familiar with chronological details, themes, and key figures, then the interview will be greatly improved. Reading and discussions beforehand could supplement missing knowledge on the topic. Learn about interview techniques from linguistics (see George Lakoff and Deborah Tannen for supplementation). Ask the interviewee to bring props such as photographs, newspaper clippings, et cetera, which can be used to prompt their memory. Make sure to bring or already have signed the permission forms and deed of gift which is essential to preserving the content.

Try to eliminate any background noise that may interfere with the interview so those who listen to the recorded interview will be able to hear the questions and answers as they are spoken. Try to find a quiet room where clocks, car horns, et cetera will not be an issue as the interview takes place (forty-five to 120 minutes).

Make sure you run a test so that you know the required equipment for the interview is working! You do not want to interview someone and end up having to re-tape it because of a simple mistake that could have been prevented by taping a minute of conversation and playing it back. Make sure that all equipment you use is in working condition and that you have enough storage to record all your work.

If you have heard bad interviews, think about why they were bad. Most likely it was due to the “yes or no” questions that only get a response of “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know.” If this does happen, it is recommend by journalists that you ask a follow up question such as, “Could you elaborate?” “Can you give me an example?” or “How did that happen?” It is also recommended that you start with a topic that will help your interviewee begin to talk and have a conversation rather than a back and forth question and answer, which can be mundane and not carry any significance. A great starting point would begin with “Where and when were you born?”, “Where did you grow up?” and from there you could ask them a specific question such as “What year did you graduate from X?” or “What branch of the military did you join and in what year?”

Remember to show that you’re interested and listen with a careful ear (be an active listener). Eye contact can be a strong indication of your interest in what they have to say and will encourage them to discuss significant events in their life such as war, death, education, and other trials and tribulations, which make the interview priceless.

Examples Questions


Q: What is your name? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived? Where did you go to school? Did you have any brothers and sisters? Where did your father and mother grow up?

War Veteran Questions

Q: What were you doing before the war? Were you married or single at the time that you joined the military? Did you enlist by your own volition or were you drafted? What year and month did you enter the military? Can you discuss your experience in basic training? What was your military specialty (infantry, pilot, airborne, et cetera)? Can you describe your company and/or the people that you trained with? Were you sent overseas, if so, where? Were you involved in any invasions and if so, what year (Okinawa, Italy, Western Germany, Normandy, et cetera)? How was the food? Who did you admire during the time you served (commanding officer, people you served with)? Were you ever injured, if so, could you describe it? How did the war affect your life, how so? What year did you return to the U.S.? What are some of the memorable experiences during your time in the military?









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