How do I do an oral history?

Recently I’ve had the enormous joy of spending time with people I love, connecting and/or reconnecting.

I’ve logged hours of oral histories in the process. In some ways it comes naturally to me as a journalist, but in others it feels very foreign to do so with people so intimate to me, so I’m always looking for ways to improve or adapt my process. It’s never perfect. No two interviews go exactly the same way. I suppose the only common way to go is forward.

As I tell people what I’m up to a common response is, “I’ve always wanted to do that but wouldn’t know where to begin!”

If you find yourself saying this, here are some useful guidelines…

1) Invite your subject to do an oral history with you. Give them some warning so they can get used to the idea, and a reason for why you want to interview them. Maybe you want to better understand a particular piece of history, or get to know them. More often than not, people are flattered that you want to take the time to listen to what they have to say. If not, people might hesitate to a participate for a number of reasons — perhaps they think they’re boring, or feel nervous. The former is almost never true, the latter often is. Do what you can to…

2) Make your subject comfortable. Pick a time when all parties involved are fed and watered so no one gets hangry. Meet them at home and let them sit in their favorite chair, or maybe another quiet spot they enjoy. Ensure that your phone is off so there’s no distraction and they feel like your attention is fully on them and the story they’ve generously agreed to share.

3) Choose thoughtful questions. If you’re not quite certain what questions you might be curious about, these could be a few if you’re looking to better know a person on a very personal level. If you’re looking for a better historical understanding, these might be relevant. If you suspect some questions are sensitive, find a tactful way to ask them. Regardless of what you’ve prepared, after a minute or two you might find your conversation carrying you to places you never imagined — and that’s okay. Encouraged, in fact!

4) Document the interview. Take notes by hand if that’s your style, or record it if that feels better for your purposes. Whichever method you prefer, get your subject’s permission before you start the interview. It can be off-putting to have a giant camera in your face if you’re not expecting it.

5) Say thank you! It can be scary to open up. You’ll likely drum up memories — both good and bad — that would otherwise be long forgotten. It can be a rewarding but also exhausting experience for your subject to walk through them. After the interview, you owe them a big thanks for their time and effort. I’m a big fan of sending a snail mail card or letter to follow up.

My best advice is this: Begin anywhere, at any time. Make a point to sit down with someone you’ve shared a roof with for a lifetime or someone who has drifted in and out at pivotal moments, or someone you’ve known about, but not known well. Take a moment to understand them, the nuances that make them who they are. The most important thing to do is to make the conversation happen.

Do you have any oral history tips to share? Questions for me? Leave them in the comments if you’re so inclined.


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