How to do your own oral history interview

This guide will give you the fundamental knowledge you will need to conduct your own oral history interview.

A short video produced by Cole Kawana in 2009 gives an introduction to some of the interview techniques. There are many factors which can affect the quality of an oral history, but with good preparation and planning they can be handled without any major headaches.

Cole was just a sixth grader at the time when he created this video. In many respects, Cole sounds just like a regular boy; he plays basketball in an Asian hoops league, surfs, plays the piano, and practices Kendo. But he has extraordinary talent and has created this excellent tutorial which everybody can use easily. To know more about him, read the article that was originally posted in Palisadian-Post on July 15, 2010.

Why are oral histories so important?

Let’s start interviewing!

Step 1: Preparation – Equipment

Do you already have the following items?

  • Video Camera: with an external microphone input
  • Tripod
  • Microphone: clip on or hand held with stand
  • Cables: power for camera and microphone cable
  • Recording Media: tapes or memory cards
  • Lighting: Lamp or other light
  • Extra batteries
  • Lens cleaner

Once you have gathered them, make sure that you know how to operate your equipment! You may consider having a practice session before your “real” interview if necessary.

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Step 2: Pre-Interview

The purpose of the pre-interview is to familiarize yourself with the person who you will interview (the interviewee or narrator).

During the interview, your questions will guide the direction of the interview. So it’s important for you to get some background information and stories of the person who you will interview.

  • Call or talk with the person who you will interview as needed.
  • Research the topics of your questions (Become familiar with questions)
  • Create an interview question list

Once you have gotten to know the person who you will interview, you may also do the following.

  • Decide on time, date, and location of the interview
  • Print out your questions
    Click here to download Sample Questions (Coming Soon!)
  • Prepare a release form (permission for use of your interview)
    Click here to download the sample release form ”
    * Please note that this Oral History Interview Release Form is provided as a sample for educational purposes and is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

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Step 3: Interview

Now you are ready for the interview!

Remember, your questions will guide the direction of the interview. You may reshape your questions as new points of view or memories are brought into the dialogue during your interview. Your job is to read between the lines and make connections between the recollections by asking questions which help to clarify and elaborate on the stories and recollections.

Let’s follow the steps!

3.1 Set-up the interview location

  • Check if you have all you need before you leave home!
    Click here to download the check list >>
  • Arrive on time
  • Set up your equipment.
  • Test record to make sure the recording sounds and looks good, after setting up your equipment.

3.2 Conduct the interview

  • Ask the question on your list. Make sure to start with non-controversial questions.
  • Occasionally look at the screen to confirm that the video is consistent with framing the narrator.
    *****Tips for GOOD stories! *****
  • Order your questions in a logical progression that will help you to move in some sort of chronological order.
  • Ask about abstract ideas such as thoughts and feelings.
  • Ask open-ended questions that require more of an answer than “yes” or “no.”
  • Ask one question at a time.
  • Allow the narrator to answer fully, avoid interrupting.
  • Avoid stopping and starting the recording.
  • Be respectful of the narrator's time and keep the interview timely.
  • Avoid “off the record” information.

3.3 Wrap-up the interview

  • Provide the narrator with the release form to sign.
  • Label, date, and record location information and interviewer and interviewee names.
  • Always thank the narrator and follow up with a thank you letter.

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Step 4: Review interview

After the interview, you don’t want your interview to just sit in your storage. Here what you need to do.

  • Review the recording and edit if needed.
  • Transcribe the interview
  • Check specific name spelling and places with the narrator as needed.
  • Make copies of the recording and send one to the narrator with your thanks.

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Step 5: Share interview

Now your interview is presentable. Some people may keep the interview only within the family, but we encourage you to share the valuable stories to the public!! You may consider donating the interview to a local organization, upload it via YouTube, and more. You can also use Discover Nikkei to share your recording with others using the Nikkei Album.

Let’s see the sample edited interview that Cole Kawana did.

(All videos are courtesy of Cole Kawana)

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Downloadable files for your interview

Oral history interview additional resources

How to do your own interview (Developed by Prof. Art Hansen, 2005)

History Matters: Oral History Online

Oral History Online!, Regional Oral History Office (ROHO)
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History
by Judith Moyer

Oral History Association

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