“Do you have another question?” Oral History Interviewing: Ethics and Best Practices | Episode Three

The Apple Paring, Clementine Hunter

This is a step-by-step piece on oral history interviewing. We will discuss designing an oral history collection, background research, and getting in touch with narrators. Lastly, we’re going to address pre-interviewing and interviewing best practices.

Step One: Project Design and Background Research

As we’ve mentioned in the first episode of this series, oral historians, before knocking at someone’s door with their recording equipment, have done plenty of background research on the narrator and the historical event they wish to discuss with them. Most interviews are part of archival collections, so they aren’t stand-alone interviews but rather part of an oral history project which has been meticulously planned.

During the “project design” stage, researchers ask themselves a series of questions which help them identify goals, expectations, and motivations behind the collection they want to build. These are some of the issues they might want to address:

A Talk in the Park, Haddon Sundblom
  • What is the goal of my project?
  • Why do I want to pursue this research?
  • Who will I interview and why?
  • What do I want to ask about in the interviews?
  • What types of documentation about this issue currently exist?
  • What will be the final output of this project? A book? A public exhibit? A podcast?
  • What kind of legal release form would be appropriate to have for this collection?
  • What type of collaboration do you envision with narrators and project partners?

Planning an oral history collection takes time. But determining motives and ambitions early on helps oral historians build a coherent and mindful collection.

One thing mentioned in this list that we haven’t talked about yet is the legal release form. There are two different forms that researchers will ask narrators to sign. The first one is a consent form, which is signed before the interview starts and states that the researcher has the interviewee’s consent to record them. It’s not mandatory, in fact many collections don’t provide for one. On the other hand, the legal release form is indispensable. It states:

  1. copyright, so to whom the recording belongs to;
  2. purposes, which are most likely educational;
  3. and interviewee’s rights — can they edit the interview or withdraw it from the archive at any time?

This form is usually signed after the interview, because only when the interview is over the narrator knows what they have said on the record.

Step Two: Contacting Narrators and Pre-Interview

Grandfather and Grandson Talking, Ludwig Knaus

It’s now time to find potential interviewees. Securing interviews is a long process, historians write invitation letters and send them to several people, families, organisations, or post them on social media platforms. When we hear back from someone who is interested in being interviewed, we try to schedule a pre-interview. While the actual interview could take about 1–2 hours — depending on how much the narrator shares — the pre-interview usually takes about 15–30 minutes. During this chat oral historians explain their role and interviewing style, how an oral history interview works (from recording equipment to ethics), and they’ll also want to go over copyright by illustrating the legal release form. But, more generally, the pre-interview is a time for the narrator to get to know the person who is going to interview them and for the interviewer to answer any questions the narrator might have. This process is helpful because it allows for the creation of a space in which the narrator feels that they can tell their story on their own terms.

Mother and Children talking to Vagabond, Theophile Steinlen

Step Three: The Interview

We are now finally conducting the interview. We have scheduled a time and a place to meet up — often, for in-person interviews we offer to record them at the narrator’s home. This is because our number one priority is to make the narrator feel comfortable. For most people opening up and sharing their memories with someone they don’t know very well is much easier if done in a familial environment. Since 2020 though, it has become essential to adapt to virtual interviewing, platforms such as Zoom have stepped in to help oral historians carry on their research projects despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

In any case, when we’ve reached our recording location we go over narrator’s rights one more time. It’s crucial to make sure they understand that they decide what to talk about and that the interviewer will not pressure them to answer any question.

Testimony of a Minor, Honore Daumier

This last consideration leads us to best practices. During an oral history interview, researchers tend to follow a set of behaviours which have proven to make the narrator feel at ease. We can summarise them like this:

  • won’t interrupt the narrator. I’ll wait until they have finished laying out their train of thought before I ask another question.
  • won’t insist if they aren’t answering my question.
  • I’ll ask for consent before asking a personal question. If necessary even multiple times during the interview: I’ll make sure I have their ongoing consent.
  • I’ll thank them after they’ve shared an important or traumatic experience in their lives.
  • won’t stop the recording abruptly. I’ll stop the recording only if the narrator asks for it to be stopped and/or they consent after I ask.
  • won’t ask questions about others. For example, “What was the response of the Muslim community?” vs “What was your response as a Muslim?
  • Ultimately, I’ll let them decide what they want to share.

A lot of work goes into oral history interviewing, from thorough project planning to in-depth background research. Being a careful listener and gaining narrators’ trust is definitely what oral historians think about during an interview.

If you’ve been asked to participate in an oral history project we hope this resource was helpful and clarified some of the questions you might have had around oral history interviewing.

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