Want to Do Your Own Oral History?


Do you want to complete an oral history interview of your own? 

Select an interviewee:

In my classes, students have gained new perspectives on the past by interviewing women who are at least a decade older than themselves.  Find one who is interested in sharing and able to speak about her experiences in the 20th century US. Recollections of high-profile events (Vietnam War, the feminist movement, end of the Cold War, etc.) are always interesting, but so too is gathering remembrances of day-to-day life in a given time and location. 

Past students have found the project most rewarding when they have interviewed family members or other women important in their lives.  In your interview, try to gain an understanding of your interviewee’s life experiences, decisions, options, opportunities, and constraints in the context of the historical events we’ve discussed. 

Prepare for the interview:

1. Prepare interview consent forms that both you and your interviewee will sign (sample). Make sure you do this before you start. Scholars are always surprised by how long it takes to track down paperwork afterward.

2. Research a topic, community, and the individual you are interviewing. Ask for a brief biography or resume.

3. Generate questions. They can be general about a life path or specific to a topic or event.  (You must plan but also allow the interviewee to take the lead and provide details that are not listed.)  

4. Choose an interview site carefully.  It should be convenient and as distraction-free as possible.  (That said, a busy coffee shop can actually have fewer distractions than a private home.)  Note that interviewing two people at a time can shift interview dynamics and content.


1. Record your interview. Video is wonderful, but audio interviews were the gold standard for many years. Recording enables you to listen and participate in a conversation rather than worrying about note-taking.

2. Test your equipment before you start and check that your equipment is still working as the process continues.

3. Start with identifying information.  This is MY NAME and I am interviewing NAME about TOPIC. It is DATE and we are meeting LOCATION/ZOOM.

4. Limit your own remarks. Remember that you are trying to get the interviewee to tell her story not show how much you know.

5. Avoid "yes" or "no" questions. Start with "why," "how," "where," "what kind of ...". Or ask her to describe something. Active verbs elicit detail.

6. Get comfortable with silence; allow for pauses to blossom into narratives.

7. Don't interrupt a good story just because it strays from your planned questions. (But do redirect if your interviewee strays to irrelevant material).

8. Consider using this final question: Is there anything that I didn't ask you that you wish I had?

Follow-up after the interview:

1. Thank your interviewee.

2. Preserve: Save the recording, transcribe it, and/or write it up as a narrative.

For more tips and advice on oral history, see Wilma Baum's tips on doing oral history.

Want to Do Your Own Oral History?