Oral History: Some Ideas and Suggestions

People are always asking “what are the questions to ask for an oral history interview?” The short answer is that there are no right or wrong questions or answers. Remember, every person has a story. The questions need to be designed to get historically interesting information without impinging on the interviewee’s privacy or emotional well-being. The following are a few suggestions:

  • In general, have a list of topics in mind, not specific questions, word-for-word, and not in a specific sequence. You may want a start-up list of questions to get your interviewee and yourself comfortable before you change to your topic list.
    Plan the topic and form of your first substantial question after a “settling down” phase. Ask a question that will prompt a long answer and “get the subject going.”
  • Ask easy questions first, such as brief biographical queries.
  • Ask questions one at a time.
  • Be a good listener, using body language such as looking at the interviewee, nodding, and smiling to encourage and give the message, “I am interested.”
  • If necessary, use verbal encouragement such as “This is wonderful” or “How interesting!” Be careful, however, not to pepper the interview with verbal encouragement such as “uh-huh,” said at the same time that the interviewee is speaking.
  • Ask for specific examples if the interviewee makes a general statement and you need to know more. Or you might say, “I don’t understand. Could you explain that in more detail?”
  • Ask for definitions and explanations of words that the interviewee uses and that have critical meaning for the interview. For example, ask a horseman what he means by the shaft of the buggy. How was it used? What was its purpose?
  • Rephrase and re-ask an important question several times, if you must, to get the full amount of information the interviewee knows.
  • Unless you want one-word answers, phrase your questions so that they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Don’t ask, “Were you a farmer during the 1930s?” Ask instead, “What was it like farming during the 1930s?” Ask “essay” questions that prompt long answers whenever you can.
  • Ask follow-up questions.
  • Be flexible. Watch for and pick up on promising topics introduced by the interviewee, even if the topics are not on your interview guide sheet.

The following is a hypothetical list of questions as they might evolve during an interview:

  • When and where were you born?
  • So what do you remember of coming to Australia?
  • What did your parents discuss of life in Lebanon?
  • Do you know why they decided to come to Australia?
  • Why did they choose that town?
  • When your family moved to the country, what did they do?
  • What sort of business did they open?
  • Tell me about that type of work?
  • How did the locals accept them?
    Was the business successful?
  • Where did you get stock?
    Your parents travelled back to Redfern frequently?
  • What do you remember of those early visits to Redfern? Where did you stay?
  • I have heard a little of that family, do you know more?
  • Tell some more about when that meeting happened?
  • Other Lebanese families settled in the town as well?
  • How did your family mix with other Lebanese families?
  • How did you become friends with locals?
  • That would have been a big event for the town, were you involved?
  • You say your brother joined the army, tell me about that?
  • Why did you father close the business?
  • You were excited about coming to Sydney, what was it like to leave the town for good?
  • How did you find University?
  • That must have been exciting, tell me about your experience?
  • You said your grandmother’s funeral seem to mark the end of an era, why was that?

What we do not want to know:

  • Internal family squabbles.
  • Personal matters that the interviewee believes should remain private.
  • Gossip
  • Detailed finances of interviewee or associates. It may be enough to know that someone was prosperous or poorly paid.
  • If an event is too painful to recall, do not press the matter.
  • Very personal or emotionally demanding questions, for example, it is enough for the historical record to know that someone’s spouse died of an illness; there is nothing to be gained by pressing the interview to recall painful memories about the illness.

The oral history recording should not be an essay about human frailty. We know the world is not perfect and many people do things they should not, so you need to balance the quest for the historical record against personal feelings and reputation.