Episode 33: Researching the Civil Rights Movement, Oral History

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Sarah’s Research Journal

Fifth Entry: Oral History

I had a great time conducting oral history interviews on integration in Bulloch County’s school system. There are a lot of things to consider when conducting oral history interviews. Here are some tips I learned during my experience.

How do I conduct an oral history interview?

  • Pre-interview: Before conducting an oral history interview, it is important to research the topic you want to learn more about. By doing so, you can write informed, open-ended questions geared towards your area of focus.
  • Questions: Create open-ended questions that allow interviewees to talk candidly. Example, use “Please describe your experiences in the civil rights movement” instead of “Did you participate in the civil rights movement?”
  • Equipment: Prior to the interview, it is important to charge all of the equipment batteries and ensure that everything is working properly. To guarantee you end up with high-quality oral histories, it is important that you use up-to-date, good equipment.
  • Interview: Interviews should be conducted in a quiet room with as little background noise as possible. To reduce the possibility of interruptions, you could politely ask participants to silence their cell phones. Placing a “do not disturb” sign outside the interview room will also help cut down on interruptions.
  • Agreement form: It is imperative to have interviewees sign a release form. This document transfers the participants’ rights to the interview to either the person conducting the interview or to a repository. This allows the interview to be used for educational purposes, such as research.
  • Post-interview Transcription: The interviewer, repository, or an outside agency should transcribe the oral history. Although this process is tedious, it is beneficial to researchers and helps individuals quickly go through the interview.

What is the best way to store oral histories?

  • It’s best to store oral history interviews in multiple locations and on several devices. This ensures that the data is protected in case one device is lost or damaged.
  • Donate oral histories to an archive, library, or other institution. By donating the interviews, researchers will be able to learn from your work and use it for their research.

What are some difficulties of conducting oral history interviews?

  • Unwillingness to talk: Family members or friends might have convinced them to be interviewed, and they may be uncomfortable speaking about personal experiences with a stranger. In this case, it is the interviewer’s job to make the participant feel as comfortable as possible. If the interviewee remains hesitant to speak candidly, do not pry or pressure them to answer questions.
  • Camera shy: Some people can be camera shy and unwilling to speak openly when being filmed. They may be tense while the camera is rolling, but more relaxed when it is off. In such cases, it may be best to use a tape recorder.
  • Some subjects are difficult and painful to talk about, and interviewees may get emotional. When/if this happens, it is important for the interviewer to remain composed.

To learn more about conducting oral histories and best practices, please read Doing Oral History by Donald A. Ritchie and visit the Oral History Association website.