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Notes on Oral History Recording

If an interview is to be of use as an historical source it is important that the recording should be of reasonable technical quality. This may be readily obtained with modern equipment such as DAT or other electronic recorders. Before first interviewing, experiment with your recording equipment to make sure you get a good quality of recording.


Interviewing is a very personal thing and people quickly develop their own particular style. The following are merely which have worked in the past. Most elderly people are only too happy to talk about their memories of the past. They usually think, however, that their lives would be of little interest to anyone and as a result are usually very afraid of boring the interviewer. It is necessary, therefore to explain carefully the purpose of the interview and to /reassure; them that their very ordinary memories of the past are of real value.

Interviews should, whenever possible, be conducted in the respondent’s home, as people are more relaxed in surroundings they know. One can only really interview one person at a time, therefore, try and conduct the interview when the person is likely to be alone. This, of course, is not always possible and if one does have to interview more than one person at a time, try to direct questions at one person and then refer them to the other rather than having them both answering at once. Usually, however, the other people present are content to listen, though it is worth remembering that the presence of others (especially neighbours) may inhibit some people from saying things that they would be willing to say to a stranger.

On arrival at the home of the respondent, set up the recorder as soon as possible. Unless you do this the respondent in all prob­ability, will start telling you things which you would have preferred to have ‘on tape’. It is certainly not a good idea to listen to a person's story and life history first and then to ask them to repeat it into the tape-recorder, as this means the interview loses freshness and attracts attention to the process of recording. It is essential, of course, to keep chatting to the respondent whilst one is setting up the recorder, otherwise they will become tense and nervous.

The interview itself should ideally take the form of a conversation. The interviewer should talk as little as possible during the interview, encouraging the respondent and showing interest by smiles, head-nodding etc. rather than saying anything. A series of possible questions should be prepared beforehand, but one should be very flexible, follow­ing up interesting information in detail.

Above all, the interviewer should avoid asking leading questions, or questions which have a yes/no answer. Much better to ask ‘Why did you go into the mill?’ than to ask, 'Did you go into the mill because your family needed the extra money?’ Similarly, the interviewer should always act dumb! For example, if the respondent asks the interviewer whether they know a particular work process, or game, or whatever, the interviewer should always try to get the respondent to explain it in his own words rather than just say that he knows it already. The only exception to this is when the respondent is speak­ing about particular streets or similar. To confess that one doesn't know where some street is or was, invariably leads to elaborate, but often incomprehensible directions being given and increases the tension of the respondent. Better perhaps to say, ‘Oh, I think I know where you mean’, unless the location is likely to be of importance.

Frequently, elderly people have difficulty remembering the date when something happened and will become confused and agitated, thinking that this sort of factual information is what the interviewer requires. In such cases the interviewer should indicate that an approximation is all that is required. If the date of a particular occurrence is important then most elderly people find it easier to 'date' an event by some significant occurrence in their lives - e.g. the marriage, mother or father's deaths etc.

It is important that the interviewer should keep some control on the interview. Where the respondent wanders from the point, do not be afraid to interject with a question bringing them/back to the subject of interest. Similarly, if the respondent says some­thing interesting or unusual, and then continues on, don't be afraid to stop them and ask them in greater detail about the subject of interest.

Once the interview has been underway some time, don't be afraid to wait for the respondent to answer a question in greater detail. A silence will often create sufficient tension to prompt. The respondent to answer in much greater detail than they would other­wise have done.

Don't argue with the respondent, just try to stay neutral. Don't interview for too long - 1 -11/2 hours is long enough and some people tire even quicker.

Always ask about other material of historical interest that the respondent may possess - e.g. diaries, documents, letters, photo­graphs, etc., with a view to depositing them in local history libraries, etc.

© This document was kindly provided by David Jacobs of the RSGB, the original project was organised by Harriet Karsch, of the Association for Jewish Youth and ran in the 1970s collecting East End Jewish oral histories. The document has been edited to bring the section on recording equipment up to date, but offers excellent advice on conducting oral history interviews.

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