The Interview

Student Multigenre Web Projects:
Exploring Local History

Oral History

An oral history is a written transcript of an oral interview.  It focuses on the PERSONAL history of the person being interviewed, and while it may include ‘historical” references to such events as wars and elections, it tends to focus on the personal day-to-day life of an individual.  Information such as the cost of daily necessities, fashions, music, books enjoyed, dating practices, working conditions, stories of school and family life are an integral part of a good oral history.

Interacting with history

While the person you interview may have lived during the Depression or have fought in Korea, it is less likely she was present in Dallas when President Kennedy was shot. Events like this one were major media events that changed the culture of the country and sometimes changed people's consciousness. In other words, there have been certain events in history that changed our view of who we are individually and as U.S. citizens.

This is an important distinction to remember. You will need to know the personal level of involvement of the person you interview and plan your questions accordingly.

The Interview

For this project you are to interview a woman or man who lived through the time period you are researching. You will be asking her/him many questions about her/his life, so it is best if all of you are comfortable.  You may wish to choose someone in your family or a close family friend. However, you may also be meeting and getting to know someone new who has offered to help with your project.

Take this experience as an opportunity not only to come to understand history better but also to get to know another person better. Generally, when we come to know others on a deeper level, we also learn more about ourselves.

Remember that no matter who you interview, you must respect the person who is willingly sharing his time and the story of his life with you.

Steps to Follow

  1. You must first research the time period you are doing your project on. You can use the library, historical society/museum, Internet, newspaper archives, etc. 

  2. Then you must develop a set of questions that you intend to ask this person.  Write questions that focus on her/his life. Do not interview your person until you have had your questions reviewed by your teacher. Check the calendar for the due date for these questions.

  3. For help, review FAQ list.

  4. You must send or take the Request for Interview form to your person before the interview.

  5. Set up a time and place for the interview. Focus on what is convenient for your interviewee instead of what is convenient for you. If you need transportation, arrange this with your parents formally. Do not expect them to drive you somewhere at the last minute.

  6. Dress nicely for your appointment. Be sure that you and your partner have everything you need: tape recorder, camera, paper and pen, set of questions, etc.

  7. Introduce yourselves and thank your person for his/her time (even if it is your relative, be businesslike).

  8. While you are interviewing the person using the questions you developed, make sure you document his/her responses. (We suggest you use a tape recorder). When things come up that you didn't anticipate but that seem helpful, continue. If the train of thought starts to get way off track, be tactful in getting back to where you need to be in your interview.

  9. You need to get the Interview Release form signed also.

  10. Before you leave, be sure to thank your person. Also ask if it will be all right to meet again if you have more questions. It might also be acceptable to use the telephone for a follow up interview. However, this may not work well for all people. Think of their convenience and not your own.

  11. After the interview is completed, write down what you believe are the most important parts of it.  This will help you understand where to start when you begin your transcript. When you get to the transcript, if you find that there are further questions you have, make a new list of questions and contact your interviewee for a second interview.

  12. Work on your transcript as soon as possible after the interview while it is fresh in your minds. If you wait too long, you will forget important details.

Helpful Hints

  • Your questions are a guide – NOT the law.  The best way to conduct an oral history is to ask a question and then let the person TALK.  You do not have to ask every question: it’s best to let the memories and enthusiasm of the person being interviewed take over.  Some of the best stories and “history” are revealed this way.

  • Make sure to write down your impressions of the person, setting, and experience of interviewing.  Usually you will remember the most vivid details right after the interview, but forget them after awhile.

  • It is so important for you to be accurate. Tape record your interview. But also, take careful notes, both of you. Use quotation marks around things that your interviewee says. Ask him/her to repeat what he/she said if necessary. You would not want to misquote or misrepresent what someone said.

  • If you don't understand, respectfully ask for clarification.

Tips for Creating Questions

General Memories

  • Ask for memories of the event in general.

    • What do you remember?

    • Where were you?

    • What were the most important aspects of the event?

    • What one thing will you always remember? Why do you think this sticks out for you?

  • Ask about the effect of the event on his/her life.
    • How did the event affect you? Change you? Change how you thought? Change others you know? Impact your choices? etc.
    • What effect did this event have on your family?


  • Ask questions regarding the culture at the time
    • What was the popular culture like: music, movies, television, radio, advertising, art, etc.
    • What impact did the event have on any of these?
    • Who were the cultural heroes of the time? Why? What did you think of them?

The following questions may or may not be applicable to your interview.

  • Ask questions about society, social roles, employment, etc.

    • What was your job? What do you remember about it being satisfactory or not.

    • Where there any limitations or restrictions on what you could do for a job or in going to school? Legal, social, family? Explain.

  • Ask questions about politics.
    • Who were the major players? What were they saying?
    • What discussions were people having about this event/topic?
    • What laws or policies changed?


  • What was the economy at the time like? Inflation? Cost of living?
    • What was the effect on his/her buying power?
    • What about wages?

What else?

  • You should ask any questions that you think will help you gather important information.

  • Questions should be open ended. "How" or "why" questions are good ones.

  • Avoid asking any question that can be answered with "yes" or "no."


  • The person you interview may have a personal story or two to tell. You should regard these as special and important. You should ask specific permission to retell or use these stories in your project. Only word for word transcripts would be ethical to use.

| Home | About the Project | Students' Projects | Our Communities | Unit Plans | Genre List |

| Topics | The Interview | The Transcript | Historical Overview | Project Documents | References & Links |

© 2004 Pat Schulze and Dawn Hogue