Oral History Guide

(for Community History Interns)

Oral History: A Quick Start Guide for Interviews for the “Newton County African-American History Project” and the Newton County Oral History Project (The "N-Corps")
(Notes by Professor Mark Auslander, Department of Anthropology & Cultural Production program, Brandeis University)

I. The Basics

1. Introductions. Explain who you are and why you are pursuing this. Indicate the kind of information and memories you are interested in. Use your judgment: many interviewees are eager to get going without long introductions, but appreciate some sense of what you are interested in.

Explain: we hope to develop an archives that will document the social and cultural history of African-American families and communities in Newton County . These interviews will be preserved by the Newton County African-American History Association and made available to all interested scholar, students and community members.

2. Have consent form signed and collect it (Explain this is required by the Association). Give each interviewee a copy of the Project Explanation sheet.

3. If you are engaging in electronic recording of any sort, explain the recorders.

4. Establishing Key Information on tape (and written down): Name of interviewees(s), name of interviewer (s); date, time and location of interview; and note duration. Please ask the person to state for the recording his/her name and where he/she was born. (If you aren't digitally recording the interview, make sure all this information is clearly written on your notes.

5. Avoiding formal interview and “interrogation” style. Although it is important to elicit information, the standard formal interview style is alienating and deadening, uncomfortable for all concerned. Try as much as possible for a free-flowing conversation. Don’t impose your own personality or agenda, but do, when appropriate, share some information about yourself and your own family, where you grew up, etc.

6. Learn to be comfortable with silence. People need a while to think and for memories to surface.

7. Try to ask “open-ended” questions most of the time. Keep listening for answers to questions you never even thought to ask. The best oral history interviews are processes of mutual discovery – in which the interviewer and interviewee learn something new, that neither of them quite knew before. When appropriate bring in your own experience and family background, but do this sparingly, always keeping the orientation towards the stories and memories of the person or persons you are talking to.

8. Be polite, establish eye contact. Nod and gesture as appropriate; try to key your responses to the person’s interactional style, without overdoing it.

9. Humor is one of your most important assets, and remember a little basic human kindness goes a long, long way.

10. Be careful to preserve each person's privacy and confidentiality.


A. Family Relationships and basic biographical information. Parents, siblings, spouses. Approximate birth dates (and death dates). Often helpful to draw a diagram or have the interviewee draw a diagram/family tree of relationships. Pay attention to nicknames and “kinship terms.”

. B. Specific Locations (Neighborhoods, cities, and communities people lived in.) Don’t necessarily impose a chronological sequence on the narrative (but make sure the key points about change over time do emerge). “Tell me about the old neighborhood,” might work for some, but might not for everyone.

Asking about specific houses: Establish years when the person lived in the house. Do your relatives still live there? Have you been back there recently?

Asking about a place of business: Owner? Approximate years in operation? Appearance from outside? In mind’s eye, walk you through the place of business: favorite items, high priced items/services?

C. Events

C-1. Cyclical: For instance, ask about annual events when the person was growing up. Christmas, Easter Sunday, first day of school each year. Particular questions help to set the scene: what foods were eaten, did you wear a new dress?

C-2. Specific: Particular events in the person's life that they remember, such the consecration of a new church; the first time you sang in the choir; played an instrument; first day in high school or college.

D. Objects of Memory. Very important prompts: Photographs, heirlooms, furniture, “mundane” objects of labor. Have each object narrated (and make it clear via the audio tape and written notes which object is being discussed.)

E. Work and Labor. Often, this is the most revealing area of inquiry. Describing the patterns of work, Specific tools used. Techniques. Hard jobs, easy jobs. How did you learn to do the job? Who taught you?

F. Sports and Leisure. Again, very specific questions. How a person learned a given skill, who taught you, who did you teach? Greatest triumphs, greatest defeats or frustrations.

G. Works of Art and Performance Genres. Ask the person to describe works of art or performance that they have helped create. How did they come to learn the skills to make this work? Who influenced them in particular? If a tangible piece (a painting or sculpture), where is the work? If a performance, describe the first and subsequent performances.

Remember, to learn about the big things, ask about the little things….