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Women's Studies (WOMS10): Interviews

Oral Histories

According to the Oral History Association's website, "Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events." Oral history is both the oldest type of historical documentation and one of the most modern, initiated with reel-to-reel recorders at Columbia University in the 1940s and now taking advantage of 21st-century digital technologies.

*For more on Oral Histories, see the Oral History Primer page, created and maintained by U.C. Santa Cruz. 

Interviewing Tips and Techniques

From the University Library at the Univ. of Calif., Santa Cruz

From Basic Interviewing Techniques

  1. Ask open-ended questions which can be developed at length by the interviewee. Remember the ideal oral history interview is a considerately directed monologue and not a conversation. The interviewer's unobtrusiveness and attention are essential.
  2. Start the session with easy and enjoyable kinds of questions and let the interviewee run with them. In this way you will establish a pattern of in-depth responses and recollections. The interviewee is then able to structure his/her narration of an experience in ways that indicate those factors that they feel are most significant or important. The person also overcomes the natural, initial anxiety once s/he has spoken at length about something s/he knows well. Often the interviewee provides highly significant information on subjects you might never have thought of pursuing. By permitting the person to introduce a topic, you are less vulnerable to charges of having asked a "leading question," or of trapping an interviewee into talking about sensitive matters. Sample question. Could you tell me something about your adolescent years? About how you started in this business? Instead of interrupting in the beginning of a general question of this kind, jot down questions on your note pad and listen attentively to the interviewee. When a natural pause is reached you may then say, "Your recollections have brought a great number of subjects/topics to my mind that I would like to know more about . . ." Never overwhelm with multiple questions. Take your time and never convey hurry or impatience.
  3. Learn to listen very carefully. You want the person to develop in as much detail as possible the area of inquiry. Convey your interest by establishing eye contact when appropriate. Don't appear to know everything but do be very well-informed. Indicate that you have read seriously and informed yourself about the subject but that the interviewee obviously has specialized, first-hand information which you value.
  4. Miscellaneous Interviewing Suggestions Ask clear, brief open-ended questions requiring detailed answers, particularly at the beginning of the interview so that the narrator will be encouraged to relax and talk freely. Ask provocative questions which further your inquiry, but do not assume an adversary role. The tone of voice and the way in which a question is phrased convey your intentions. If asking about mistakes or failures in a person's life or career (if pertinent to the inquiry) broach triumphs and successes first. When narrator goes off on a tangent steer him/her back on course gently and firmly.Refrain from making value judgements either implicitly within questions or explicitly. Deal with contradictions in testimony itself or in reference to other sources in a matter-of-fact way, such as: "I have read in such-and-such or someone else told me just the opposite of what you have just told me. Could you help me to resolve this contradiction, to explain this discrepancy?" Ask so-called naive questions; they convey to the interviewee a sort of subtext, that you are ignorant, but not stupid, and want to know details. Remember: people love to tell about what they know and what they do; given a comfortable, relaxed interpersonal environment you can be of service in helping them to recapture their own memories, their original perceptions of events and experiences. The interaction which is the interview is a unique opportunity not to rehash old memories but to call up the past in fresh, actual recollections of the events themselves.

One Minute Guide

One Minute Guide to Oral History by Carole Hicke

The One-Minute Guide to Conducting an Oral History

  • Ascertain willingness of narrator to participate.
  • Research narrator's background; prepare and send outline.
  • Schedule appointments.
  • Obtain signed release agreement at first interview.
  • Tape-record interviews.
  • Get interviews transcribed.
  • Review transcript; then get narrator to review.
  • Deposit corrected transcripts, tapes, and release agreements in the appropriatelibrary, archives, or historical society.

The One-Minute Guide to Oral History Interviewing

  • Ensure that equipment is functioning properly.
  • Label tapes with names interviewer, narrator, date, tape number.
  • Take outline, photos, clippings to interview.
  • Obtain signature on release agreement.
  • Develop rapport but remain neutral.
  • Ask who, what, where, when, why, how.
  • Remain polite but firmly in control.
  • Listen carefully--and pursue new topics.
  • Use silence.
  • Ask for examples and anecdotes as illustrations. 

How to Conduct an Interview

Dos and Don'ts


  1. Don't ask leading questions.  Leave your opinions out of it.
  2. Don't ask multipart questions.  Make sure your person understands the question and has adequate time to answer.
  3. Don't be so intent on your list of questions that you miss a great follow up question.  Listen to the answers!
  4. Don't be afraid of silence.  Use it.  Your person may need time to think about his/her answer.


  1. Start your interview with casual conversation to put your person at ease before the interview officially starts.
  2. Ask for clarification either immediately or later on (retrospectively).
  3. Be encouraging with either body language (nodding your head or smiling) or verbally ("I see." etc.)
  4. Ask for elaboration either immediately or later on (retrospectively).
  5. Do use a mixture of open and closed questions with the majority of your questions being open ones ("Tell me about...")