4. Interviewing

Oral history interviewing approximates to many kinds of situations in which one person is seeking to obtain information from another. In other words it is not a scientific technique (although it should be a systematic one) for which there are many fixed rules. A successful interviewer will develop his own methods and the most that a publication like this can hope to provide will be a few general guidelines.

More useful than any guidelines, however, is sensitive reviewing by the interviewer of the work which he has actually done. Potentially good interviewers will recognise many of the mistakes that may occur in their first interviews and be able to make the appropriate changes in their subsequent work. Those who lack this facility are unlikely to make good interviewers. The benefits from reviewing recordings will be greater if the study and analysis of the recorded interviews is a shared experience. Interviewing is commonly an emotional process from which the interviewer cannot entirely disassociate himself. (It would, in any case, be counterproductive for the interviewer to try to eliminate his commitment to the interview because it is on this personal level that much of his effectiveness will depend.) But it is important that he should have a thorough understanding of how he functions in an interview situation and how his informants react and relate to him. To achieve this the observations of experienced colleagues, who can bring greater detachn1ent and objectivity to the reviewing process, are particularly valuable.

It is helpful in oral history that interviewing is carried out within a clear historical framework; for when the aims are clear the achievements can be the better assessed. The most effective test of oral history interviewing is whether or not it is producing appropriate results. If the interviewer has been successful in these terms then this, more than his observance of all the approved conventions, is the ultimate criterion by which his work must be judged.

Having said this, the following guidelines may nonetheless be instructive:


The purpose of oral history interviewing and recording is to collect interesting and significant information by questioning men and women about their personal experiences within prescribed subject areas. Interviews should be based mainly on activities or events in which informants were directly involved. Opinions and attitudes may also be of interest and value, provided they generally derive from some personal knowledge on the part of the informant. Completely unfounded views are unlikely to be useful, unless the particular oral history project has some special purpose.

Interviews may often provide original information; they should always produce interesting reminiscences. The application of these two criteria is the best test of whether an interview has been successful or not.

Preliminary Interviews

For some kinds of oral history interviews preliminary meetings are unnecessary and can prove to be a positive disadvantage by taking the initiative from the interviewer. In recording well known politicians, for example, the historian is in any case generally able to find from written sources sufficient information about the informant's life and career to identify in advance of an interview the relevant and worthwhile subjects for discussion. The case of most informants from working class backgrounds is significantly different. Here the main and sometimes only source about the research field and the particular individual's place within it, is oral. Thus there are usually few points of reference apart from the informant's memory from which the interviewer can satisfactorily prepare himself. So, for the purpose of structuring the interview in a way which will obtain the most valid and valuable contribution each person can make, a preliminary interview is generally useful in providing the basis for successful subsequent recording sessions. The processes of research interviewing and recording methods are also sufficiently novel to unsophisticated informants that their introduction to them in a gradual fashion is a prudent and beneficial course.

The preliminary interview, therefore, has four main purposes:

  1. To enable the interviewer and informant to get to know each other and thereby create the appropriate atmosphere for a relaxed and trusting dialogue.
  2. To give the interviewer insight into the personality of the informant so that he can adjust his approach the questions he asks and the way he puts them to the individual needs of each informant.
  3. To provide the interviewer with adequate factual information about the informant's background and experiences so that he can structure the recorded interview in a sensible, well informed and appropriate way.
  4. To enable the interviewer to decide whether the potential informant is worth recording or not. Contributors should not be discarded lightly: but there is no point in pecording them unless they have useful information to give and are reasonably well able to articulate it.

If the preliminary interview has been conducted with care the subsequent recording sessions will have a real sense of purpose and direction.

Some oral historians regard preliminary interviews as anathema and most commonly argue that they rob the subsequent recordings of much of their spontaneity. It has to be acknowledged that sometimes the first account of a particular event is the best one. But the spontaneity of the overall interview is not significantly reduced provided the first recording session does not follow too closely on the preliminary meeting (a gap of between one and two weeks seems to work best). If the loss of freshness in a small proportion of the recording is a regrettable price which sometimes has to be paid, there are clear compensating advantages from preliminary interviews which can be identified. The opportunity they provide to reflect on and study the range and detail of possible questioning, can result in many questions being put which might not have occurred to the interviewer in the heat of a recording session which was not so prepared. It can be argued that follow-up interviews serve the same purpose; but they do so only at the expense of producing a very disjointed recording in which related parts need to be subsequently brought together either by editing or more elaborate cataloguing.

Generally, the degree of useful information in a recording is in direct proportion to the amount of interview preparation that has been carried out. Preparation which is also related to a prior appraisal of the informant's capabilities will usually result in recordings of greatest substance and economy. An undisciplined interview, on the other hand, will produce recordings and transcripts which are difficult and time consuming to organise or use as well as being extremely expensive products. A heavy cost may have to be paid in cataloguing and transcribing for that first spontaneity which too easily deteriorates into superficial meanderings.

Recording Sessions

The ideal oral history recording would be a natural and spontaneous unfolding of all those parts of an informant's life story which have a connection with the research field being studied. Natural and spontaneous they will often be; but it is the rare and treasured exception when interviews unfold. More typically they are drawn out through good preparation and hard work. Interviews most conveniently follow a chronological pattern; start at the beginning and work systematically through the period which the particular project is concerned with. This helps to ensure that most of the informant's relevant experiences are covered and also correlates particular details with specific periods and places.

Do not hurry the interviewing process. The pace of an interview depends mainly on the informant's personal capacity; the length depends entirely on the amount of useful information he has to give. There should be no other personal factors to consider in deciding how much time to devote to each informant.

Keep your questions as short and simple as reasonably possible and only ask one at a time. When you are reaching the end of a reel avoid questions which are likely to elicit a lengthy response, so that the informant does not lose the thread of his answer during a reel change. Do not interrupt the informant while he is speaking or interpolate 'yes', 'I see' and other noises to encourage the speaker and reassure him of your interest and attention. Appropriate facial expressions serve this purpose equally well and do not spoil the recording with extraneous noises.

Interviewing Sins

  1. Questions which are unnecessarily long
  2. Questions which are not clear
  3. Questions, too frequently, which are answerable by 'yes' or 'no'
  4. Combining several questions into one
  5. Interrupting a speaker with a secondary question before he has finished answering the first
  6. Failing to press a question which has not been fully or satisfactorily answered
  7. Seeking, too often, for opinions and attitudes (particularly without establishing any factual basis for them)
  8. Missing opportunities for follow-up questions which are 'invited' by earlier answers
  9. Not asking for specific examples to illustrate general points which an informant has made
  10. Jumping to and fro between one subject and another, or one time period and another.

The final transcript of a recorded interview can provide revealing evidence about how effectively the interviewer has done his job. For similar reasons as reviewing the recordings, the transcript merits study. Perhaps the clearest indication that preparation was inadequate or the interviewer somehow lost his way, is to be found in the balance between questions and answers. If the interviewer occupies a disproportionate amount of transcript text, then it is likely that something has gone amiss!