ORAL HISTORY GUIDELINES:
What is oral history?
Oral history is the systematic collection and recording of individual memories as historical documentation. An oral historian collects memories in the same way a museum collects artifacts. In fact, many museums of modern history collect oral histories along with artifacts, ensuring that that their physical collection of objects is more fully interpreted.
While collecting artifacts may be difficult, collecting memories can be much easier.
The practice of collecting oral history has been around for a long time. The so-called father of history, Herodotus, used oral sources to compile his early Greek histories. But only since the 1970s, with a growing interest in local and community history, have historians begun to rely more on direct oral sources to explore the lives of people often left out of historical works. These people include ethnic and racial minorities, working-class men and women, and even children. By going directly to these sources, historians have been able to explore and document their sources through first-hand accounts. Today oral history continues to be a popular and fruitful technique for historians to capture the “voice” of a person who actually experienced an event or time period. From these individual accounts, historians can often draw larger conclusions about historical eras, geographical areas, and specific events.
WWII veterans often think that they do not need to provide an oral history because they did not serve in combat, or they do not feel that what they did was of great importance. That is not the case, because the history of World War II continues to be written today. In the coming decades, historians will be asking new and different questions about the Second World War. Many of those questions will probably relate to the contribution of those who did not directly participate in combat. So now, more than ever, it is of crucial importance to preserve the history of all who served during World War II.
Ten steps to conducting good oral history interviews
- Inform the Interviewee: Before any interview takes place, you should inform your interview subject of the purpose of the interview, the general subjects to be covered, the time and place of the interview, how the interview will be conducted (will it be taped, video taped?), and what will be done with the information.
- Perform Background Research: You should do appropriate background research on their oral history topic before you conduct an interview. A trip to the library, as well as research on-line, is crucial to make sure that you have a familiarity with the subjects to be covered. An uninformed interviewer is a passive interviewer, unable to control the structure and direction of the interview.
- Prepare Questions: You should have prepared questions written down. These questions should be broad enough to let the interviewee describe or explain the how, what, where, and why of a subject, but should be limited enough so that the interviewee knows what you are interested in learning.
- Be an 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. Don’t just stick to your scripted questions—be prepared to follow up on interesting or important stories or themes if the opportunity presents itself.
- Take Notes: You should take notes during the interview. 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 for Inaccuracies: If the interviewee appears to be presenting a much distorted account, you can switch to a negative tack without damaging rapport. 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. It is also best to save more personal and sensitive subjects for the middle of the interview when a more relaxed atmosphere has been established.
- Accept Silence: Expect and accept a little silence. Never rush the interviewee into answering. One of the most common mistakes that novice interviewers make is to repeat or rephrase a question when the interviewee does not immediately respond. Another frequently made mistake is moving on to the next question at the interviewee’s first pause. 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. Silence can be awkward, but useful.
- 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. Conclude by thanking the interviewee for his or her time. If you have taped the interview and agreed to supply the interviewee with a copy, tell him when you will have that tape prepared. After the interview, write a thank-you letter to the interviewee.
- Label Your Tape: If you are recording your interview, clearly label your tape with the date, the interviewee’s name, and the subject of the interview. It is always a good idea to start your interview by recording a short introduction at the beginning of the tape which includes the above information (labels can fall off): “This is Joe Smith interviewing Mary Jones about her WWII experiences on Thursday, October 9, 2003.” If you have the ability, digitize your tape onto your computer.
- Transcribe Your Interview: Recording your interview only on tape will not be very helpful to others wishing to use your interviews for further research. Typing out your interview is time-consuming, but important. Not only will it make your interview more accessible to future researchers, but it will oblige you to listen more closely to the content of the interview.
Constructing good questions
Constructing good questions is just as important as getting good answers. By asking the right questions, you can control the interview. A good question is one that is easy to understand and allows the interviewee to explain the who, what, when, why, and how of an issue or an occurrence. Remember, the idea of an interview is to gather meaningful historical information.
Yes or No Questions
Yes or No questions will get you some information, but broader-based questions will allow your interviewee to better explain, describe, elaborate, and inform. “Were you angry when you heard about Pearl Harbor?” is not as good a question as, “How did you feel when you heard about Pearl Harbor?” Ask yes or no questions and other simple factual questions early on in the interview to get needed background information and let both parties get comfortable with the interview process.
On the other hand, you should be careful not to make your questions too broad. A question like, “Can you tell me what it was like in the Army?” is probably too broad. Interviewees will usually appreciate it if you give them some parameters to work between: “Can you tell me what barracks life was like in the Army?” or “What was it like the first time you saw combat?”
Confusing or Multi-Part Questions
Be careful to avoid confusing or multi-part questions: “What do think about the way President Johnson conducted the war before and after the Tet Offensive and how do you think domestic events effected his ability to lead?” If you want the answers to each part of this question, break it down into at least three questions. All your questions should be easily understood. If you don’t get answers to the questions you ask (after an appropriate pause), rephrase the questions, or simplify them.
Leading and Biased Questions
Be careful not to ask leading or biased questions: “Didn’t you hate having to live in a barracks with so many other women?” or “Why do you think New Orleans is the best city in America?” (This last question would be OK to ask if the interviewee had stated that she thinks New Orleans is the best city in America.) Instead ask, “What was it like having to live in a barracks with so many other women?” and “How do you like living in New Orleans?” These last questions give the interviewee an opportunity to share her positive, negative, and neutral opinions with you.
Get the Facts Before
Don’t ask factual questions that you should have researched before the interview: “What year did the war start?” or “Who was president then?” It is your responsibility to go into an interview as fully prepared as possible. Good research leads to good questions. Good questions lead to good interviews. Don’t be afraid to follow up on information that comes up that you don’t know. If your interviewee says, for instance, that he was in basic training at Camp Beauregard, you should feel free to follow up with, “Where is Camp Beauregard located?”
Respect Your Interviewee
Always respect the privacy and sensibilities of your interviewee. If he or she is uncomfortable about a subject or refuses to answer a question, move on to another subject. Remember—the interviewee is doing you a favor answering your questions.
Practice, Practice, Practice
It takes time to find just the right way to put a question so that the interviewee knows the kind of memories you are looking for, but has the freedom to develop and elaborate on his or her memories as the interview progresses. The more interviews you perform, the better you will become at crafting and delivering questions.
Planning Your Oral History Project
- What are the goals and objectives of your project? List the objectives and goals you want to achieve from collecting oral history information. From this information, write a short mission statement describing your project (no longer than 100 words)
- Who will you interview? The person you choose to interview should be able to help you accomplish the project goals and objectives.
- What kind of research will you do ahead of time? Give yourself plenty of time to research your subject on-line and make a trip to the library.
- What do you want to find out? Prepare your questions in advance. Make sure you ask the questions that will provide your interviewee the opportunity to share their memories and opinions with you.
- Where will the interview be conducted? Decide on a centrally located place that is comfortable and inviting to the interviewee, as well as you. The location should be free from visual and sound distractions.
- What kind of equipment or supplies will you need? Obtain a tape recorder or video camera far enough in advance to practice using it properly. Be prepared to take along an extra audio or video tape, pens, a notebook, an extension cord, or fresh batteries.
- What products will result from your oral history? Transcripts, videotape library, exhibits, research papers, etc.
Sample questions for interviewing a WWII Veteran
- What is your full name?
- When and where were you born?
- What were you doing before the war?
- Were you married or single?
- Where were you when you found out about Pearl Harbor?
- Did you enlist or were you drafted?
- What was your branch of service? (USA? USN? USMC? USCG? USMM?)
- When did you enter service? (month-day-year)
- Where did you enter service?
- Where did you receive your basic training? Describe basic training.
- What weapon(s) did you qualify on during basic training? (M1903 rifle? M1 rifle?)
- What qualification level did you achieve? (Marksman? Sharpshooter? Expert?)
- What was your military specialty? (Infantry? Artillery? Airborne? Armor? etc.)
- Describe the people you trained with in basic training.
- When did you deploy overseas?
- What theater of operations were you in? (ETO? PTO? MTO? CBI?)
- What was your port of embarkation for deployment? (New York? San Diego?)
- How long did it take for you to reach your theater of operations?
- Did you receive any training after you were deployed overseas?
- What type of equipment were you issued before you were deployed overseas?
- Were you involved in any invasions? (If ‘yes’ please describe)
- Were you ever taken under enemy fire? (If ‘yes’ please describe)
- Did you return fire? (If ‘yes’ please describe)
- What was the food like?
- Did you admire your commanding officer?
- Did you admire the people you served with?
- Were you wounded? (If ‘yes’ please describe)
- Did you get enough sleep?
- Where were you on VE-Day?
- Where were you on VJ-Day?
- When did you return to the US?
- How long did you serve overseas?
- What are some of your most memorable experiences during WWII?
- Did your service in WWII effect the rest of your life? If so, how?
- What lessons for today's generation would you like to pass on?
- Is there anything I forgot to ask you about your service during WWII?
Sample questions for interviewing someone from the WWII Home Front
- When and where were you born?
- What were you doing before the war?
- Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?
- Did you have any family members who served in the military?
- If so, how did your family life change due to their absence?
- If a student during the war: how did the war affect students at your school?
- What are your memories about rationing?
- Did you participate in scrap drives?
- What about War Bond rallies?
- Did your family or anyone you know plant a Victory Garden?
- Did you or anyone you know work in a defense industry?
- Do you have any special memories about celebrating holidays during the war?
- What are your most profound memories of the war?
- What are your memories of D-Day? V-E Day?
- Where were you and what did you do when you heard the war was over?
- How did you feel when the war ended?
- What were some of your most memorable experiences during WWII?
- Did WWII effect the rest of your life? If so, How?
- What did you do after the war?
- What lessons for today's generation would you like to pass on?
- Is there anything I forgot to ask you about your life on the Home Front?
Sample Release Form
Students should always obtain permission to use an oral history interview for a report, an exhibit, an archive, or any other use. A sample release form is presented here to show you what it should contain. Keep one for your records and give a copy to your interviewee:
ABC Middle School WWII Oral History Project
1234 St. Charles Ave.
New Orleans, LA
I hereby give and grant to the ABC Middle School WWII Oral History Project my tape recorded memoir as a donation for such scholarly and educational purposes as the Project shall determine. It is expressly understood that the full literary rights to this memoir pass to the ABC Middle School WWII Oral History Project and that no rights whatsoever are to vest in my heirs now or at my death.
Signature of Interviewee
Address of Interviewee
Signature of Interviewer
Date of Agreement
Subject of Tape(s)
Sample WWII Histories
Watch featured oral histories that have been collected by the Museum. These oral histories contain vivid retellings and synthesis of the experience of the war through first-hand accounts and memories of the men who were there.
Normandy Academy - D-Day: Stories of Service and Sacrifice
High school students, find out how to take a trip to France, go behind the lines at the Museum and prepare for college all at once. Space is limited.
The Victory Gardens of WWII
Visit the Classroom Victory Garden Project website to learn about food production during WWII, find lesson plans and activities for elementary students, get tips for starting your own garden and try out simple Victory Garden recipes!
The Science and Technology of WWII
Visit our new interactive website to learn about wartime technical and scientific advances that forever changed our world. Incorporates STEM principles to use in the classroom.
Kids Corner: Fun and Games!
Make your own propaganda posters, test your memory, solve puzzles and more! Learn about World War II and have fun at the same time.