A Guide to Doing Oral Interviews
I. Instructions for Interviewers:
1. Establish the date, time, and place of the interview well in advance. You may want to call and remind the interviewee a few days before your appointment.
2. Clearly state the purpose of the interview at the beginning. In other words, explain why you are doing this project.
3. Prepare the interview by reading background information about the subject of the interview and by writing down and arranging the questions you will be asking.
4. It is usually a good idea to keep most of your questions broad and general so the interviewee will not simply answer with a word or two.
5. Avoid loaded questions or questions that might lead the interview in a certain direction. Instead, keep your questions neutral.
6. If any of your questions involve controversial matters, it is better to ask them toward the end of the interview.
7. Always be courteous, and be sure to give the person enough time to think, remember, and answer. Never argue, even if he/she says something with which you personally disagree. Remember that the purpose of the interview is to find out what that person thinks, not what you think.
8. Always take notes, even if you are tape recording the interview. Notes will help clarify unclear portions of the tape and will be essential if the recorder malfunctions or the tape is accidentally erased.
9. Try to write up the results of your interview as soon as possible after completing the interview. Even in rough form, these notes will help you capture the sense of what was said as well as the actual information that was presented.
II. A Suggested Interview Plan:
Remember that the person(s) you have chosen to interview is/are a person(s), with feelings, sensitivities, and emotions. If you intend to tape record the interview, ask permission first. If you believe that a tape recorder will inhibit the interviewee, then leave it at home and rely on notes. People usually remember the personal aspects of their lives more vividly than they remember national or international events. This can be an advantage, since you are trying to find out how they lived during a particular period/event.
Begin your interview by getting the following important data on the interviewee:
2. Age at the time of the event.
3. Race, sex.
4. Where the person lived at the time and what that area was like then.
5. Family background (parents occupations; number of brothers/sisters; whether interviewee considered himself/herself rich, middle class, poor).
6. Educational background.
7. Occupational background.
Then move on to questions that cover more directly the era/event under discussion. For example, if you are covering the Great Depression, you might ask such things as:
1. What did this person do for a living?
2. Was the person unemployed during the depression? How did they cope?
3. If the interviewee was young during the depression, what about his/her parents?
4. How did the person spend their leisure time? If single, what were the dating and courtship practices like?
5. How important was the family? The church? The school? Other institutions?
6. Did the person know other people worse off than he/she? Did the person help them? If so, in what ways?
7. Was the person's life altered by the depression? How? In what ways?
8. Did the person go to the movies? What did the person see? What about the radio and radio programs? How much did it cost to see a movie? How much were other items?
9. Did the person get employment through programs such as the WPA or CCC? If not, did they know others who did?
10. Does the person remember important political events or controversies of the depression era?
11. What was the person's view of Franklin Roosevelt? Of the New Deal?
In your analysis of the interview(s) you conduct, note the specific points emphasized, then try to find common patterns in their experiences. Then ask yourself what these patterns reveal about the people's feelings, perceptions, and reactions to the events that affected them. Look for the personal impact of events on your interviewee(s) and discuss them. Look for any political or social viewpoints that indicate the nature of the person's perceptions and feelings. What significant things did your interview(s) reveal about the U.S. at that particular time? What comparisons can you make with the present? Did these interviews help you better understand an historical period or events? If so, how? If not, why not?
Last modified: Ides of August, in the 2762th
ab urbe condita
(from the Foundation of the City, Rome, that is....2009, for those of you on a different calendar).