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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
ab urbe condita
(from the Foundation of the City, Rome, that
is....2009, for those of you on a different calendar).