In my (limited) experience, sitting down with perfect strangers and asking them questions about their past is one of the most intimidating things in all of researchdom—and given my line of historical inquiry, I’ve also anxiously awaited the day when someone not-so-subtly hinted that I should give it up. Thankfully that has not happened yet. But despite the downsides, oral history has also proven to be one of the most interesting and rewarding elements of my research. It sounds cliché, but hearing people tell their stories about the past, flawed as they may be, makes what I study seem relevant, and it reminds me that history is not merely an abstraction. Even those long dead were once living, making history in their own place and time.
I’ve conducted several interviews over the past few months. All have been informative, and while I can feel myself getting better with practice, none have been altogether satisfying. Maybe they never will be; there will probably always be that one question I think of after the fact and wish that I had asked. But I just bought myself a new recorder that can transfer the audio files to the computer for long-term preservation, and I plan to conduct several more interviews over the summer, so I’m hoping to learn more about the intricacies of the process. How to make the interviewee feel comfortable, how to ask questions and guide the conversation in a way that yields the desired information, how to handle sensitive subjects like race, politics, and religion, and, of course, how to make sure that you can actually use the material in a publication. Also, I’m hoping to find out how to know when your subject is lying to your face. I’m pretty sure I’ve been lied to, even if I can’t say for certain whodunit.
This is where you come in.
I’m going to be shameless in my quest for knowledge. If you have any experience at all with oral history, or even if you know where I can find some good information, I would be much obliged if you would pass it along. You can either leave a comment on this post, or you can use the contact form. Anything at all—books, articles, links, personal observations, whatever. It’s all useful. Many thanks in advance.