In Their Own Words
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the Would-be Interviewer
by Reed Hutchinson, UCLA Photographic Services
M.A. '00, director of UCLA's Oral History Program
FOR THOSE who want to do their own family oral history, the UCLA
Oral History Program can provide detailed suggestions on the types
of questions to ask, equipment and recording guidelines, interview
preparation and interviewing techniques, as well as the titles
of manuals and how-to books on oral history. For more information
or for referrals to training workshops, call the UCLA Oral History
Program at (310) 825-4932 or visit its Web site: www.library.ucla.edu/
libraries/special/ohp/ohpindex.htm. Here are a few tips to
help you get started:
• An oral history is not about the interviewer. Your role
is to ask questions and listen, not to share your experiences.
• A chronological organization is the best structure for
an oral-history interview.
• Start a new topic with a broad question — “Tell
me about” or “Can you describe” — that
launches the interviewee into an in-depth description or reflection.
• You are collecting stories, not just facts or opinions.
Try to get the specifics of an interviewee’s experience
before you ask them to reflect on or assess that experience.
• Don’t interrupt.
• Have follow-up questions ready for when an interviewee
finishes answering your initial question.
• Keep questions concise and focused.
• Avoid yes or no questions, except to clarify specific
• Don’t start the interview with highly personal
or sensitive questions.
• Be ready to challenge the interviewee when there seems
to be more to a story than you are being told.