This page provides an overview of oral history methods and techniques, sources for further reading, and a selection of sample interview styles that help illustrate what is and is not an oral history.
The Oral History Association defines oral history thus:
- Oral history refers both to a method of recording and preserving oral testimony and to the product of that process. It begins with an audio or video recording of a first person account made by an interviewer with an interviewee (also referred to as narrator), both of whom have the conscious intention of creating a permanent record to contribute to an understanding of the past. A verbal document, the oral history, results from this process and is preserved and made available in different forms to other users, researchers, and the public.
The Oral History Association provides the following general principles:
- Oral history is distinguished from other forms of interviews by its content and extent. Oral history interviews seek an in-depth account of personal experience and reflections, with sufficient time allowed for the narrators to give their story the fullness they desire. The content of oral history interviews is grounded in reflections on the past as opposed to commentary on purely contemporary events.
Oral historians inform narrators about the nature and purpose of oral history interviewing in general and of their interview specifically. Oral historians insure that narrators voluntarily give their consent to be interviewed and understand that they can withdraw from the interview or refuse to answer a question at any time. Narrators may give this consent by signing a consent form or by recording an oral statement of consent prior to the interview. All interviews are conducted in accord with the stated aims and within the parameters of the consent.
Interviewees hold the copyright to their interviews until and unless they transfer those rights to an individual or institution. This is done by the interviewee signing a release form or in exceptional circumstances recording an oral statement to the same effect. Interviewers must insure that narrators understand the extent of their rights to the interview and the request that those rights be yielded to a repository or other party, as well as their right to put restrictions on the use of the material. All use and dissemination of the interview content must follow any restrictions the narrator places upon it.
Oral historians respect the narrators as well as the integrity of the research. Interviewers are obliged to ask historically significant questions, reflecting careful preparation for the interview and understanding of the issues to be addressed. Interviewers must also respect the narrators’ equal authority in the interviews and honor their right to respond to questions in their own style and language. In the use of interviews, oral historians strive for intellectual honesty and the best application of the skills of their discipline, while avoiding stereotypes, misrepresentations, or manipulations of the narrators’ words.
Because of the importance of context and identity in shaping the content of an oral history narrative, it is the practice in oral history for narrators to be identified by name. There may be some exceptional circumstances when anonymity is appropriate, and this should be negotiated in advance with the narrator as part of the informed consent process.
Oral history interviews are historical documents that are preserved and made accessible to future researchers and members of the public. This preservation and access may take a variety of forms, reflecting changes in technology. But, in choosing a repository or form, oral historians consider how best to preserve the original recording and any transcripts made of it and to protect the accessibility and usability of the interview. The plan for preservation and access, including any possible dissemination through the web or other media, is stated in the informed consent process and on release forms.
In keeping with the goal of long term preservation and access, oral historians should use the best recording equipment available within the limits of their financial resources.
Interviewers must take care to avoid making promises that cannot be met, such as guarantees of control over interpretation and presentation of the interviews beyond the scope of restrictions stated in informed consent/release forms, suggestions of material benefit outside the control of the interviewer, or assurances of an open ended relationship between the narrator and oral historian.
The following audio and video clips run along a spectrum, from samples that share almost nothing with the ethics, methods, and techniques of an oral history interview to samples that share more in common with oral history interviews. The final two samples are oral history recordings.
- 1) Bill O’Reilly interviews Jeremy Glick, Feb. 4, 2003.
2) John Stewart interviews John Yoo (pt. 1), Jan. 11, 2010.
3) Fresh Air with Terry Gross, featuring author Will Bunch, “Will Bunch: Tearing Down The Reagan ‘Myth,'” Feb. 5, 2009.
4) Cooking Up A Story interview of Ken Meter: Building A Local Food Economy (part 1 of 3), Oct. 20, 2008.
5) Sustainability History Project: Ben Fowler’s interview of Gary Larsen, May 12 2010.
6) British Library, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust oral history project: Bill Williams’ interview of Gisela Feldman, ca. 1980s.
William L. Lang and Laurie Mercier, “Getting It Down Right: Oral History’s Reliability in Local History Research,” Oral History Review 12 (1984), 81-99.
Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, eds., The Oral History Reader (London, Routledge, 1998).
Valerie Yow, Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists (Thousand Oaks, Calif., SAGE Publications, Inc., 1994).
Valerie Yow, “‘Do I Like Them Too Much?’ Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer and Vice-Versa,” Oral History Review 24: 1 (Summer 1997), 55-79.