Oral History Project Tips

June 22, 2015

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?









Oral History Transcription

June 8, 2015

Submitted by Nicolaus Stengl

For my first week as an intern at Centre College’s library, I received a tour of the archives. Though I worked at the library my whole first year, I had yet to go into the archives until this week. After I was shown where everything was by the archivist, Beth Morgan, I searched the area and found things I never knew about Centre College, such as the fact that there was a Dental School here from 1900-1908. I was also shown the oral histories. When I found out that the Danville City Schools integration oral history had yet to be transcribed, I decided to make that a project for this summer.

There are eight cassette tapes in all. All of them are interviews done by EKU in 1980 (35 years ago) on individuals associated with Danville City Schools. Each cassette is an interview of one individual telling their experience of the integration and their own trials and tribulations.

I picked a random one from the box and I had to find a cassette player which was a difficulty in and of itself. The only cassette player on campus was a boom box. Once I had the cassette player, I set it up and Jami Powell showed me how to use a it. I set out a notebook, pen, and headphones, sat down and started the tape. It buzzed for a minute as the tape rolled and then it began.

The beginning sounded like a court tape: “This is the Helen Fischer Frye Interview. A retired librarian. September 25, 1980.”  The interviewer begins by asking Ms. Frye about herself and family. As I listened and jotted down her words, I felt like I transcended time and went to the place of the interview. You become Helen Fischer Frye as she tells the story of her nine brothers and sisters and her parents, who had a fifth and sixth grade education.

Ms. Frye is an African American woman who grew up in the Boyle County area and who was the first African American woman to be enrolled at Centre College. Ms. Frye never finished at Centre College but rather moved on to Kentucky State College and then to Indiana University for her M.S. in Secondary Education and then to the University of Kentucky to get her Masters of Library Science. She did continued on to Ohio State University to do graduate work there as well. She was also a sixth grade school teacher in Casey County in1942 and moved to Boyle County, the following year. She remained at Boyle County until she retired in May of 1980. At this time, the schools were segregated and so she taught at the African American school, which was Bate School at that time. During her time there, she was outspoken in the Civil Rights Movement and helped with the lunch counter sit-in that happened here in Danville, Kentucky. She said that “ I was teaching at Bates School then and I was called in and chastised for doing that, but [she] told them that it was part of my citizenship rights and my obligation as a Christian and I was not going to stop and then there was quite a bit of flak about my participation in the Civil Rights.”

Ms. Frye discusses her twin brother who became an undertaker and how there was not an embalming school for African Americans so he had to go to the Kentucky School in Louisville.Though Day Law was in effect, the teachers illegally had the African Americans sit with the white students and the teachers would say:

“now you come right in this classroom with everybody else, but if ever anybody comes in here and we are knowledgeable that it might be a person who would check to see if they \were adherent to the law all you do is say is you came in this room and that you were going right back to your room.”

I found this particularly fascinating for the time, because the teachers didn’t care for the segregation law and so put their job on the line to teach the students, whether they were black or white.